Republicans Get Their Recruit in Missouri

Vol. V, Issue 43 – This week:

  • Christie to leave New Jersey as blue as he found it
  • Hawley provides Senate GOP with some good news
  • Collins won’t run for governor of Maine

Governor 2017

New Jersey: There won’t be any silver linings for Republicans in New Jersey next month. Democrat Phil Murphy is headed for a large double-digit margin over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. The two-term tenure of Gov. Chris Christie ends with the state’s Republican Party in arguably worse shape than it was before he held office. Republicans in New Jersey are a minority party that has no hope on the horizon of holding either chamber of the legislature, or of winning the governorship for quite some time.

This situation dates back to Christie’s decision, in his 2013 re-election, to forge alliances with Democrats rather than looking to build up the state’s anemic GOP by seriously contesting as many legislative races as possible. The bottom line: Aside from a few modest pension reforms, there won’t be much to remember Christie by after he’s gone.

Senate 2018

Missouri: Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley’s decision to get into the race against Sen. Claire McCaskill, D, is probably the best piece of news Republicans have gotten in months. He’s a top recruit, and he already leads McCaskill in at least one poll, despite the fact that he only just won the statewide office he holds.

McCaskill may have seemed like dead meat before Hawley’s entrance, but Republicans can take nothing for granted in the first Trump midterm. Besides, McCaskill also seemed like dead meat in 2012, yet she survived.

The lesson from that election was that you can’t beat even a weak incumbent with the wrong challenger. You also can’t beat somebody with nobody. And as much as he might be admired by libertarian-leaning Republicans everywhere, outsider Austin Petersen is basically nobody in MIssouri politics. Maybe that’s too harsh, but he’s at least quite unlikely to score a statewide nomination on his first run as a Republican.

Serious Missouri Republicans in the state who had considered running against McCaskill basically got out in anticipation of Hawley running. What’s more, the Club for Growth has already backed Hawley, and Steve Bannon, who plans to run insurgents across the map, has basically indicated he will do nothing to stop Hawley. So the young rising star will have an open lane to the nomination.

That means McCaskill won’t have the option of choosing her opponent this time by intervening in a hotly contested and bitter Republican primary to help her weakest potential opponent (as she did for Todd Akin).

McCaskill has proudly identified herself as part of the “Resistance” this year. In doing so, she has locked herself into a re-election strategy. Her only hope is that the Trump administration becomes so incredibly toxic by next fall that she manages to survive. That’s a reasonable bet in some places, but it’s probably a longshot in Missouri.

Democrats remained competitive in the Show-Me State as long as they did through a combination of white urban gentry liberals, black voters, and rural blue-collar whites. The latter group basically quit the Democratic Party over the last four election cycles, beginning with 2010, and McCaskill’s win was the outlier. Trump’s nomination helped accentuate and accelerate the state’s already-in-progress lurch toward the GOP and away from the Democrats’ cultural leftism. There hasn’t been too much research on the topic, but it isn’t unreasonable to hypothesize that the Ferguson riots played a role in this as well.

Tennessee: Last week we noted that Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R, had jumped into the race to replace Sen. Bob Corker. This week, it appears more and more likely that former Rep. Steve Fincher, who hails from West Tennessee, will also jump into the GOP primary as more of an establishment choice.

Wisconsin: After swearing off a run for Senate all the way back in February, Republican Rep. Sean Duffy started giving off signs in September that he might challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D, after all. He’s suddenly sending more signals to that effect, attacking Baldwin last week over Obamacare. There’s really no reason to launch that specific attack if he isn’t considering a run against her. And he has lots of time, given Wisconsin’s late primary.

Wisconsin Republicans won’t exactly be without a candidate if Duffy stays out — state Sen. Leah Vukmir has already jumped into the race, as has Marine veteran and business consultant Kevin Nicholson. But Duffy is a much more formidable candidate than either of them. And he’s precisely the kind of candidate you think of as feeding off the success of President Trump. The key to Wisconsin, a disproportionately white state, has always been its blue-collar rural areas, which voted for Obama twice and for Trump in 2016.

Trump carried Duffy’s northern Wisconsin district by 20 points in 2016 after Barack Obama came within three points of carrying it in 2012. That seat, previously held by powerful Democratic Rep. David Obey until 2010, has precisely the mix of rural, small town, and blue collar that you’d expect to become Republican in the age of Trump, and indeed Duffy was one of Trump’s early supporters, and a speaker on his behalf at the Republican National Convention last summer.

Wyoming: Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (now Academi) and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has become Steve Bannon’s apparent favored candidate to take down Republican Sen. John Barrasso in next year’s primary. Exactly why he might choose the Wyoming race over the one in his home state of Michigan remains something of a mystery.

Yes, it’s much easier for Republicans to win in Wyoming than in Michigan, but it isn’t easy just to move to Wyoming (or even to move back to Wyoming) and grab the Republican nomination for something. Liz Cheney learned that the hard way when she briefly explored a Senate primary run against incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi in 2014, and her surname carries a lot more weight in the state’s GOP circles than Prince’s ever will.

Governor 2018

Maine: The news that Republican Sen. Susan Collins is not running for governor must come as a disappointment for Republicans of all stripes. For one thing, she would have had an excellent chance of winning, where few other Republicans do. Another: If she had won, she would have almost certainly had to appoint a more reliable Republican senator to replace herself — after all, who could be less reliable than she is?

This gives the state’s Democrats — a hapless bunch in recent years, despite Maine’s leftward tilt — a much better shot at the governorship than they could have had otherwise. We’re a very long way from knowing whom they will nominate — they have a clown-car primary in the works already — but they probably won’t face the extra challenge of running against of a well-funded liberal independent candidate. That dynamic cost them dearly in 2010 and was at least an annoyance when they lost again in 2014, although exit poll data suggests that Gov. Paul LePage, R, would have won even without Eliot Cutler in that latter race.