Friday was a good day for Senate Republicans’ bid to retake the majority.
First they put a blue state on the battleground map with gold-star recruit, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Then they saw Rep. Matt Rosendale’s (R-Mont.) bid for a must-win Senate seat kneecapped — by none other than former President Donald Trump, who endorsed GOP leaders’ favored candidate, Tim Sheehy.
The twin developments shook the expanding Senate battleground map as Democrats look to protect their slim majority. After a disastrous 2022 cycle, the GOP is feeling a little bit bullish this time around, forcing Democrats on defense in a series of red and purple states. And the party’s main pickup opportunities, Texas and Florida, are tough slogs.
“We’re doing everything within our power to set ourselves up for our success,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), a former National Republican Senatorial Committee chair. “I think broader questions about what the presidential race looks like are just unknown.”
Friday’s developments point to the internal maneuverings of Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the leader of the Senate GOP campaign arm, who introduced Sheehy to Trump and worked behind-the-scenes to land Hogan. Still reeling from a series of poor recruits last cycle, Daines has made it a priority to land big names and cultivate a relationship with the former president.
Senate Republicans have long believed Hogan, a popular two-term governor who has kept his distance from Trump, is the one person who could make Maryland competitive territory. They got their wish on Friday, the last day Hogan could file, after two failed recruitment pushes during the 2022 cycle and last year.
In Montana, GOP leaders were unsuccessful in their many attempts to thwart Rosendale’s plans to once again run for Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) seat. On Friday they got the next best thing: A Trump endorsement for their preferred recruit.
Neither Sheehy nor Hogan will have anything close to an easy path against the battle-tested Tester and a to-be-determined Democrat in deep blue Maryland. Hogan could end up being something of a sacrificial lamb, with Republicans hoping he at least diverts crucial Democratic resources. Or, best-case scenario for the party, his Maryland popularity could make him a savior that delivers or adds to Republicans’ Senate majority.
But Maryland’s deep-blue lean will pose a real challenge. Joe Biden won the state by 33 points in 2020 and Hogan is running in a presidential election year for the first time.
“National issues will be front-and-center on the minds of voters. They will recognize that the majority of the Senate is at stake. So this is really a race about whether Democrats are in the majority or whether Ted Cruz, Rick Scott and the Republicans are in charge,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who supports Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks in the Democratic primary.
Still, private GOP polling conducted on two separate occasions in recent weeks showed Hogan with a double-digit lead over both his possible Democratic competitors, Alsobrooks and Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), according to two people familiar with the data who were not authorized to discuss it.
Republicans launched a full-court press to get Hogan to reconsider a Senate run after he passed last year. Daines spoke with him as he reconsidered, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also took credit on Friday for landing the former governor — something Democrats quickly amplified as they seek to nationalize the race. Even Former President George W. Bush called Hogan and urged him to jump in, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Tester said that while Hogan is a “formidable” candidate, he knows all too well that being a popular governor doesn’t necessarily translate to a Senate race. His friend, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.), lost a 2020 Senate contest to Daines.
“It’s a different race,” Tester said. “Much more intense attention, much more costly.”
The annals of political history are littered with popular governors elected with wide bipartisan support who struggled to convince those same voters to send them to the U.S. Senate. Among them: Bullock in Montana, Linda Lingle in Hawaii and Phil Bredesen in Tennessee. Federal races are inherently more nationalized, a dynamic that has become even more apparent since the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion.
“People evaluate the Senate completely differently than they evaluate governor,” Bredesen said in an interview, reflecting on his 2018 loss to Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn. They wanted to know a senator would vote the party line on key issues, he said.
“That’s what I never could get over,” he added. “I mean, the number of people, Republicans, Independents, who told me after that race, ‘You were a great governor, and if you want to run for governor again I’ll always be there. I just can’t send a Democrat to Washington.’”
Trone called Hogan’s move a “desperate attempt to return Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump to power and give them the deciding vote to ban abortion nationwide.”
The Democratic primary in Maryland now takes on far more importance. One of the richest members of Congress, Trone has self-funded his primary campaign with some $23.3 million last year. If he won the nomination, he would provide Democrats with nearly unlimited money — allowing the party to funnel its limited resources elsewhere.
National Democrats were moving quickly Friday to gear up for a potentially competitive race, connecting with top campaigns and preparing to hit Hogan. For people in both parties, Hogan’s entry was a complete surprise.
That was not the case in Montana. Republicans watched nervously for months as Rosendale teased a Senate run and took shots at the D.C. establishment for lining up behind Sheehy. Daines publicly urged him to reconsider running. When that failed, they braced for impact.
But Rosendale’s launch week was saddled with two setbacks. First Speaker Mike Johnson walked back a plan to endorse Rosendale after intraparty blowback. Then Trump blasted out an endorsement of Sheehy just hours after Rosendale filed to run.
That Trump endorsement came after a concerted, months-long effort by Daines to sell the former president on his preferred recruit. Daines personally brought Sheehy to get face time with Trump in South Dakota last year and used his relationship with the former president to tout Sheehy as the strongest candidate to take on Tester.
At Trump’s rally on Thursday in Las Vegas, Sheehy got additional time with the former president. The two met in person in Nevada, according to a person familiar with the interaction.
The endorsement came the following day.
Either way, Tester dismissed Rosendale’s entry into the race, comparing the former Maryland resident similarly to Sheehy: “We’ve got an out-of-stater McConnell recruited and an out-of-stater McConnell didn’t recruit. So what the hell.”
Beating Tester — or other Democrats like Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) or Bob Casey (D-Pa.) — won’t be a layup for the GOP. And few Republicans were willing to predict that Hogan is going to the be their majority-maker, or that the GOP is now favored to take back Senate control.
“It’s too early to say anybody’s an underdog anywhere,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “In the end, you’ve got to go out and win these races. And if you’re running against an incumbent that’s tough.”