The Senate GOP campaign arm’s endorsement of Rep. Jim Banks in the Indiana Senate Republican primary on Tuesday marks an official departure from the committee’s policy in the 2022 cycle and makes clear it will play in primary contests in an attempt to win back the upper chamber.
After a midterm cycle that saw candidates backed by former President Trump sail through primaries before suffering stinging general election defeats, Tuesday’s announcement was music to the ears of many Republicans.
“I think we’ve seen what happens when we nominate people who can win a primary but can’t pivot toward a general election and get the broad support you need to win,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who oversaw the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) efforts in the 2010 and 2012 cycles, said. “You don’t get to govern if you can’t win an election. Winning is the first important step.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the former chairman, declined to put his finger on the scale for various candidates in primary races in 2022.
But the NRSC’s decision to back Banks came mere minutes after former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) announced that he would not seek the seat being vacated by Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). In a lengthy statement, Daniels declared that being a senator is “just not the job for me … and not the life I want to live at this point,” giving the committee the opening to supporting Banks.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), chairman of the committee, said he is “looking forward to working with” Banks, whom he labeled “one of our top recruits this cycle.”
One source with knowledge said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Banks met last week, adding it “went very well.”
Banks also received an instant shot in the arm when Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) endorsed him shortly after.
The NRSC’s quick support for Banks was viewed as an opening salvo of sorts.
Some Republican operatives also believe the endorsement was a warning shot in an attempt to keep whom they consider unelectable candidates from hijacking primaries.
“There is no more welcome sight than the committee activating again and indicating their interest in delivering success for Senate Republicans in 2024 after the cycle we just went through with a committee that seemed more interested with the chairman’s campaign for president than the GOP’s campaign for Senate,” one GOP operative involved in Senate races told The Hill. “It’s just nice to have a team in charge that puts Senate Republicans ahead of themselves.”
While Daniels was considered a formidable candidate by senators and operatives, he hails from a red state that has a deep bench of possible contenders, headlined by Banks.
But Republicans are hoping to pick up seats in 2024 by defeating Democrats running in otherwise red or purple states like Ohio, West Virginia, Montana, Arizona and Pennsylvania — and they’re looking for formidable candidates.
They’re also looking at 2022 as a cautionary tale of sorts.
In New Hampshire and Arizona, two purple states, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) and then-Gov. Doug Ducey (R) decided against running. Don Bolduc and Blake Masters, political newcomers who tied themselves to Trump, advanced to the general election and were handily defeated.
Scott declined to comment directly on the committee’s decision to reinsert itself in primaries, saying, “It’s a choice they get to make.”
The decision reverts the NRSC back to 2014, when it first made the decision to play in primaries after a spate of candidates cost the party in winnable contests.
“We certainly were willing to help anyone who won a primary, but we tried to encourage good people to be in a primary — good people just being good candidates,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the NRSC chairman during the 2014 cycle that snatched the Senate majority for the GOP.
With the parallels between 2014 and 2024 clear, whether the GOP can replicate the success of its majority-winning year remains an open question — but many Republicans are confident they can avoid the pitfalls.
In Ohio, Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) and state Sen. Matt Dolan (R), who lost the 2022 primary to Vance, are considered strong general election candidates, while David McCormick is the preeminent name mentioned in Pennsylvania against Sen. Bob Casey (D).
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R), who said he is leaning toward running for the Senate, Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) are angling for a match-up against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Finally, in Montana, Reps. Ryan Zinke (R) and Matt Rosendale (R) both may run to potentially face Sen. Jon Tester (D). Tester defeated Rosendale in 2018.
Casey, Manchin and Tester have yet to announce their reelection plans.
“It demonstrates in the clearest possible terms that the NRSC is not a building full of disinterested observers,” the GOP operative said. “That they want to win, and if you as a candidate have a history of losing, you’ll have an uphill climb to win their trust.”