The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 28

This week:

  • Republican recruitment failures pile up.
  • Top-shelf GOP candidates avoid Senate runs in Missouri, Montana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania.
  • Trump’s party can’t afford a poor 2018 in the Senate.

Senate 2018

GOP Recruitment failures: Republicans look at President Trump’s poor approval numbers, their own unpopularity, and the potential disaster that could unfold if they fail to do anything about Obamacare. They look at the historical trend of presidents’ parties losing ground and losing close elections in midterms. Yet so far, they can take solace in their ability to keep winning elections in spite of everything.

This is the silver lining. Despite heroic Democratic Party efforts, massive progressive grassroots fundraising, and a Democratic voting base that is simply more engaged and energized than at any time in recent memory, Republicans have held onto House districts in special elections in Kansas, Montana, and Georgia which in this environment are not truly safe, whatever their partisan composition.

The problem for the GOP is that there’s another side to this coin. Something is clearly discouraging Republican candidates who had been considering making their big move against weak Democratic senators in 2018. Right or wrong, some of them are getting quite scared, perhaps believing they see the writing on the wall for 2018.

The announcement last week that Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., would not be challenging Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in next year’s election came as quite a shock to the Republicans’ system. Wagner had been acting, talking, and raising money like a Senate candidate right up to the moment she wasn’t one.

It’s not that Republicans can’t come up with a decent replacement candidate in Missouri. It’s that someone who seemed absolutely destined for this race, and probably perfect for it, would just suddenly up and quit.

Republicans have so far averted any sort of mass retirement crisis that would clearly and directly endanger their Senate majority. But 2018 is not supposed to be a year in which that majority is in danger. And this cycle is one in which Republicans really must put their best foot forward when it comes to challenging and defeating Democratic incumbent senators. The races for some Democratic-held seats, including Missouri, Montana and a few others, are nearly must-win races for Republicans.

Given the large number of Democratic seats up in 2018, and the very small number of Republican seats that are supposed to be competitive, 2018 has to be a good year for Republicans if they have plans of continuing to govern. The elections that follow — 2020 and 2022 — hold forth far less promise. The 2020 election will feature several swing-y seats that Republicans seized in their landslide 2014 win. The 2022 race will see them once again defending some very iffy seats that they originally won in 2010 and just managed to hold in 2016. Republicans’ best and perhaps only chance to gain ground in the Senate for some time will be in the 2018 election.

Missouri may not be a lost cause for the GOP. McCaskill is weak and must defend a state that President Trump won by 20 points. Already the GOP is pinning its hopes on the state’s new attorney general,  Josh Hawley. But Hawley was only just elected to that post a few months ago. Is he really going to start running for the next office already? What if he also takes a pass?

Wagner’s exit is not the first major high-profile GOP recruitment failure of this cycle. A number of best-of-breed potential Republican challengers in other states have, for one reason or another, backed out of competitive races that might have been potentially winnable for the right GOP challenger.

Early this cycle, Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisc., backed away from challenging Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin quite abruptly, after giving every indication that he intended to get in, and despite the race seeming like a good match for him. Republicans are still struggling to come up with a second-tier candidate, with state legislators and businesspeople discussing entry into the race.

Former Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., did not exactly drop out of his widely expected run for Senate against Sen. Jon Tester, D. Instead, he was offered a better gig as President Trump’s Interior Secretary. It’s an early Trump White House move that Republicans are sure to regret. In the time since, Attorney General Tim Fox, R, has also opted against running. Montana Republicans could still conceivably field a plausible candidate, but probably not an optimal one.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, a hoped-for challenge against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey by Republican Rep. Patrick Meehan was put on ice several weeks ago.

Republican recruitment has not been a disaster everywhere. At least not yet. There are some states — Ohio and West Virginia in particular — where Republicans seem likely to field candidates with good if not overwhelming chances. State Treasurer Josh Mandel’s run in Ohio isn’t without controversy among Republicans, but he won’t be stopped, and he should run a fairly decent race against Sen. Sherrod Brown just as he did in 2012. In West Virginia, the GOP is likely to nominate either Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is already in the race, or Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who may yet get in.

In other states — Indiana and North Dakota especially come to mind here– the field has not yet resolved itself with any clarity, but there appear to be decent candidates who are likely to enter. So there’s nothing to fear just yet there.

Still, the party’s difficulty in recruiting strong candidates for some of these almost-must-win 2018 challenges must be taken as a discouraging sign overall.

Yes, the 2018 election will probably be decided by factors not yet known today — particularly by how the economy is doing next year, if not by some other unforeseen scandal, outrage, or other incident. But as in poker, the victory comes when you get all your money on the table behind the best hand. And so far, the cards are not coming up as Republicans would have hoped.