Montana Republican seeks to knit Trump, Senate GOP as campaign chief

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) didn’t waste any time after the Alabama Supreme Court threatened to upend the political cycle by ruling that frozen embryos are people.

Reproductive rights issues had given Democrats a big leg up in 2022 while Republicans struggled to communicate cohesively in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision — and the chair of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm wanted a different model in 2024.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) went on offense after the Alabama decision. It was in contact with campaigns by the next morning, and in short order, one Republican candidate after another released similar pronunciations: IVF helps families struggling with fertility have children and should be protected.

Senate Republicans and campaign operatives alike said it was an example of the changes Daines has made at the NRSC as he looks to hold together far-flung factions of his party and retake the chamber in November.

“We just wanted to make sure we quickly went out with an exclamation point that we don’t want to restrict that option for so many families that want to have babies,” Daines said in an interview with The Hill.

He said they were in contact with campaigns “right away.”

“It was a quick response.”

Daines has also worked to correct the much-talked-about “candidate quality” problems that vexed the party in 2022 while cultivating a relationship with former President Trump — and he’s received high marks from colleagues.

“He’s done a magnificent job,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who ran the committee during the 2010 and 2012 cycles.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.)
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.)

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, December 12, 2023. (The Hill/Greg Nash)

Drawing the Senate map

His work has come to the forefront in recent weeks as the party’s 2024 map came together and the party scored big wins.

Daines scored a major coup last month when the popular former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) shocked the political world by announcing a bid for Sen. Ben Cardin’s (D-Md.) open seat, spawning an out-of-nowhere pickup opportunity for the GOP.

Hogan, who left office with a 77 percent approval rating, passed on a bid in 2022. But Darin Thacker, Daines’ chief of staff and a longtime Marylander, sent him a letter imploring him to run this time.

The pair met in Annapolis, where Thacker presented a poll showing the ex-governor in the lead.

That got the ball moving in earnest, leading to a series of meetings with Daines and what a source familiar with the governor described as a “professional, full-court press” — a big difference from the talks Hogan had with former NRSC Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and the committee during the 2022 cycle.

According to the source, Scott and Hogan held one call and discussed a possible run for “seven minutes tops” with no follow-ups. The source called the effort “passive.”

“It was like, ‘Let us know if you’re interested,’” the source familiar with Hogan said, describing this year’s outreach as “a comprehensive and exhaustive series of discussions.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan rehearses his farewell speech moments before reciting it over a video feed inside the old Maryland Senate chambers, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

To be sure, Hogan’s chances are better this cycle, with an open seat, and a source with knowledge of the NRSC’s 2022 strategy disputed the Hogan team’s recollection.

“That’s a rewriting of history. There was significant outreach and multiple discussions and he wasn’t interested in running,” the source said. “Glad he made the decision to run this cycle. It’s good for the party and all our candidates.”

Bud Daines was lauded for the effort, and days later he succeeded in clearing the field in Montana for Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and businessman whom Daines personally recruited to run against Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a top target in November.

Only hours after Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) announced his Senate campaign, Trump endorsed Sheehy, putting the proverbial nail in Rosendale’s campaign coffin. He dropped out days later.

Sheehy and Hogan joined a Republican field that leaders in the GOP believe gives them a solid chance in a year expected to feature plenty of friendly terrain.

This includes David McCormick in Pennsylvania, Sam Brown in Nevada and former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who retired from the House in 2014.

“We’ve been trying to get Mike Rogers to run for a decade,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told The Hill.

The U.S Capitol photographed on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Fixing ‘candidate quality’

The GOP has struggled for years to bypass rough-and-tumble primaries and clear the way for candidates acceptable to a general election audience.

The 2022 midterms were a prime example, when Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker and Blake Masters emerged from the primaries — with Trump’s endorsement — and helped cost Republicans the majority.

Some Republicans criticized the NRSC for not being more involved in pushing its preferred candidates.

Scott often declared that voters didn’t want “Washington to pick who the candidates are” — a posture Daines has reversed this cycle.

“He’s maneuvered the choppy waters of candidate recruitment and, more importantly, exclusivity better than about anybody in history, and largely because he’s the only person probably who dared weigh in the way he has with both recruiting the right candidates and detracting the wrong candidates,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who is up for reelection this fall.

“That’s not without considerable political risk, but it’s also what comes with tremendous political rewards,” he added.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.)
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.)

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Greg Nash/The Hill)

Daines has been helped by his relationship with Trump, which has already proven worthwhile with Rosendale’s exit.

Daines endorsed the former president in late April, becoming the first member of GOP leadership to do so as he sought to bring Trump into the fold on the party’s Senate campaign efforts.

“He’s managed that dynamic really well,” Thune said. “He knows that particularly in primary elections, former President Trump has a ton of influence with primary voters. I think he’s tried as much as possible to sync up where they can, knowing full well that trying to have clean shots at these Democrat incumbents is going to require everybody being on the same page.”

That relationship also led to reports in recent days that Trump is urging Daines to run for Republican leader.

Daines told The Hill that he talks with Trump on the phone every week or two and that the two text back and forth several times a week.

“We are staying in very close contact,” he said.

The NRSC chair has also maintained a good relationship with McConnell, who butted heads with Scott repeatedly. The Montana Republican has been trying to mend fences between Trump and McConnell to the point where the GOP leader might endorse the former president’s campaign.

Senators have indicated the likely main reason behind McConnell backing Trump is to provide a united front for the party’s Senate candidates.

Arizona Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake
Arizona Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake

Arizona Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., on Saturday, February 24, 2024.

Hurdles to November

Still, potential pitfalls await.

Daines has spoken openly about the difficulty of defeating incumbents and Democrats have a large number of battle-tested prolific fundraisers.

And despite the intense focus on candidate quality, the party still has some issues to contend with on that front. Chief among them is Kari Lake, who loudly and repeatedly beat the drum about the election being stolen from Trump in 2020. Daines argued that Lake is a “talented candidate” and has refocused her rhetoric toward issues related to the border and the economy.

“She’s focused on the future and not the past elections,” he said, adding that he believes Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) will decide against seeking a second term and that Lake will not face a tough primary, aiding her path.

There are also some questions about the committee’s fundraising, though operatives note that the malaise has seeped in across the party. To help counteract that, Daines and Senate Republicans are relying on a number of self-funders, including Sheehy, McCormick, and Eric Hovde in Wisconsin.

FILE – Voter in the foreground casts a ballot. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Democrats, however, sense opportunity against some of the GOP candidates and are quick to note that some of them were unsuccessful last cycle, including McCormick and Brown.

“Senate Republicans have recruited a roster of unvetted, carpetbagging losers with enough baggage to sink a ship,” said David Bergstein, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman. “By the time voters learn the truth about their disqualifying flaws, they won’t be able to get elected dogcatcher.”

Trump’s impact also remains to be seen, especially in some of the more purple states on the map, as well as in Maryland. Hogan has been an outspoken Trump critic, but Daines thinks Trump will keep his powder dry.

There are still eight months until Election Day, but top Republicans are optimistic.

“It’s not like he’s out there recruiting the village idiots. He’s out there recruiting the best of the best, and I think that’s widely recognized,” Cramer said. “He has universal support.”

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.