In an effort to keep their majority in 2020, Senate Republicans are doing something that has backfired on them in the past: Getting involved in primaries.
In the past few weeks, they’ve publicly bashed Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore and Kansas GOP Senate candidate Kris Kobach, who announced Monday he’s running for an open seat there.
Both men have lost statewide races that Republicans thought were winnable. And both are uniquely situated to lose them again, some Senate Republicans warn.
“Just last year Kris Kobach ran and lost to a Democrat,” a National Republican Senate Committee spokeswoman said Monday to the Kansas City Star, “now he wants to do the same and simultaneously put President Trump’s presidency and Senate majority at risk.”
That kind of thinking — that Senate Republicans know what’s best for primary voters — was prominent a decade ago, too, and it didn’t work. Most notably, in 2010 Republicans endorsed former Florida governor Charlie Crist, who ended up losing to a then-little-known politician named Marco Rubio, in part over a perception Crist was too tied to the establishment. (Crist is now a Democratic congressman.)
So what’s different this time, and how does that make primary meddling less risky?
These are particularly problematic candidates, some Republicans say. They think Kobach lost in Kansas to a Democrat because he was just too controversial. He drove Trump’s efforts to find voter fraud before he ran for governor, which made him look too opportunistic to Kansas voters.
And Moore, mired in allegations he had inappropriate relations with teenage girls when he was an adult, was the first Republican in decades to lose a Senate race in Alabama. He was controversial even before those allegations were revealed for his comments on race and gender, but Moore beat an establishment-backed candidate in the primary who would probably have handily won the general election.
So Republicans are motivated to nip uniquely problematic candidates in the bud, and unlike in 2010, they have a powerful weapon to use to do it: President Trump.
“Republicans control the White House,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist who worked for the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm in 2010 and 2012, “and unlike the Obama years, President Trump has the ability to transform a Republican primary very quickly.”
He’s proven to be a kingmaker in certain Senate races, and so far he’s largely on board with what the National Republican Senate Committee wants to happen in their 2020 primaries.
Trump has tweeted at Moore not to run, which makes it very unlikely Moore will get the coveted Trump endorsement in the crowded primary there.
It’s not clear if Trump will support Kobach (who lost a governor’s race last year after Trump endorsed him in the primary over Washington Republicans’ objections). But a Trump-Kobach alignment would be significantly less likely if Trump’s current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, left to run for the open seat in Kansas, which Republicans hope and think he might do.
On Tuesday, the Senate Republican leader, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), again tried to nudge Pompeo to get in — and Trump to support him.
"The Kansas race is open,” McConnell said, “and I'm not sure the president agrees with me, but I'd like to see the secretary of state run for the Senate in Kansas."
Getting the sitting president involved in a Senate primary is a pretty heavy-handed thing to do, which brings us to our next reason this time could yield different results: Senate Republicans had to learn the hard way that when you play in primaries, you really need to play.
When the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm endorsed Crist over Rubio in Florida in 2010, for example, it didn’t actually put any money behind Crist, so there wasn’t any practical effect to the endorsement. The same thing happened when they endorsed former governor Mike Castle in Delaware over a right-wing firebrand challenger, Christine O’Donnell.
"The committee got involved in a couple primaries verbally in 2010 and 2012,” Walsh said, “but it didn't put any real financial muscle behind it in order to preserve resources for the general election against Democrats."
Republicans outside the establishment fold are also starting to warm to the idea of picking candidates everyone can agree are best.
When the party was divided, they got burned. Republicans backed off playing in primaries in 2012, and over the course of several election cycles lost about five winnable races because voters nominated candidates who didn’t pass muster in the general — think Todd Akin in Missouri, whose use of the phrase “legitimate rape” in 2012 was a big reason he lost.
Fox News host Sean Hannity was on TV almost every night championing O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010. She lost the seat to a Democrat by nearly 20 points.
This time around, Walsh said, “I don’t see any grass roots movement flocking to Roy Moore right now. He cost Republicans that race.”
So far, he’s right. Team Trump supported Moore in the general election in 2017; Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. is vehemently against a Moore candidacy this time around.
Republicans have also gotten better at either using outside groups to sway primaries or neutralizing ones that are boosting the candidates they don’t prefer. The 2010 election was the first after Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allowed for virtually unlimited spending on congressional races. It was also the crest of the tea party wave, when an insurgent group of candidates — some winners, like Rubio, others less so — were trying to take over the Republican Party by challenging establishment figures.
There was a lot the NRSC wasn’t prepared for then, which made its efforts to be the invisible hand in primaries a bit clumsy. Strategists say the party has a better handle now on how to balance grass roots energy with the establishment’s assessment of what’s best for Senate Republicans.
When Missouri Democratic senator Claire McCaskill was up for reelection again six years after Republicans’ Akin fiasco, Republicans made sure to get their top recruit, former attorney general Josh Hawley, into the race. He now holds that seat.
None of this is to say that playing in primaries is risk-free. Appearing as if the Hand of Washington is guiding a candidate is not a helpful look in this political climate.
But a decade after trying and often failing to successfully guide Republican primaries, Senate Republicans are confident that getting heavily involved early is key to keeping their Republican majority in the Senate.