Republicans are figuring out how to strengthen their recruitment efforts after a disappointing 2022 midterm cycle that many Republicans blamed on the poor quality of the party’s candidates.
GOP officials and strategists are still poring over the midterm results and debating what exactly went wrong. But there’s broad consensus that the GOP’s roster of untested — and in several cases, controversial — candidates were at least partially responsible for the party’s failed effort to recapture control of the Senate.
“One of the lessons from 2022 is that candidate quality matters a lot,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “We came up short in a couple of key races because independent voters and some moderate Republicans didn’t like our nominees.”
“If we’re going to win back the Senate and keep the House, we have to have good candidates,” he added. “In 2022, that just wasn’t the case.”
Odd-numbered years are when the parties typically look to build out their roster of candidates. But 2021 and early 2022 proved difficult for Republicans, as top-tier recruits like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey passed on Senate bids.
Democrats went on to win the Senate races in both New Hampshire and Arizona, beating out GOP opponents who were viewed by many as too far outside the political mainstream.
In other races, like the Senate contests in Georgia and Pennsylvania, Republican voters elevated political newcomers, largely at the behest of former President Trump, who didn’t hesitate to endorse in GOP primaries.
Those outcomes proved catastrophic for Republicans. In Georgia, Trump’s Senate pick, former NFL star Herschel Walker, found himself repeatedly beset by personal controversies. In Pennsylvania, Republican nominee Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician, struggled to get his general election campaign off the ground and ultimately lost to Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.).
The end result was far from what the GOP had hoped. Despite running in an otherwise favorable political environment, Republicans failed to flip even a single Democratic Senate seat, while Democrats added one seat to their razor-thin majority.
“This past time we had Trump as a force in this. Trump was a big part of Herschel Walker. He was a big part of Blake Masters,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, referring to the Republican venture capitalist who lost his 2022 Senate bid to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). “Those candidates who lost, you can draw a pretty straight line from them to Donald Trump.”
The GOP’s recruitment and candidate vetting efforts also emerged as a point of contention between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the now-former chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
Scott largely stayed out of Republican primaries, arguing that GOP voters — and not the NRSC — should determine the party’s Senate nominees. McConnell, meanwhile, criticized the quality of the GOP’s lineup of candidates, predicting early-on that the Senate would be harder for Republicans to flip than the House because of the caliber of hopefuls.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” McConnell told reporters last summer.
Of course, 2024 may be different. Democrats are defending more than twice as many Senate seats as Republicans are and have few opportunities to go on the offensive.
Republicans also got a dose of good news on Thursday, when Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) announced that she would not seek reelection in 2024, opening up a seat in a state that the GOP sees as a prime pickup opportunity.
Multiple Republicans also expressed optimism about the party’s recruitment efforts ahead of 2024, saying that a more hands-on strategy combined with Trump’s waning influence within the GOP could help reassure top-tier recruits.
“You need people who can successfully navigate both the primary and the general. That’s the No. 1 threshold,” one Republican strategist said. “But what you have to be able to do is convince those types of candidates that, A, they’ll have the resources they need and, B, Donald Trump won’t swoop in and steal their thunder and their ability to win.”
“Again, the map is great for Republicans, but candidate recruitment is going to be critical,” the strategist added. “I think you’re already seeing the largest influencers saying that they very well may play a role in making those decisions.”
Another Republican operative familiar with Senate campaigns said that Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the new chair of the NRSC, and the Senate Leadership Fund, the influential McConnell-aligned super PAC, have signaled a willingness to play a “more active and involved” role in open 2024 Senate primaries.
Mike Berg, the communications director for the NRSC, said that the committee has already been in touch with multiple potential candidates interested in running next year.
“Recruitment is one of Chairman Daines’ top priorities and we’ve already received outreach from a number of potential top-tier candidates who are excited to run,” Berg said in a statement to The Hill.
But some Republicans said that the GOP’s candidate recruitment strategy is only one piece of a larger puzzle that still needs to be solved. One GOP Senate campaign consultant said that without adequate support from establishment-aligned groups, top-tier Senate recruits will be at risk of falling to Trump loyalists in primaries, regardless of their qualifications.
“I think it’s incumbent upon the establishment wing to do a better job, not just recruiting, but winning,” the consultant said. “They’ve got to do a better job at actually winning and campaigning in the modern day in primaries.”
Heye, the Republican strategist, said there may be a bigger challenge for party leaders hoping to recruit high-profile candidates: dysfunction in Washington. In the House, for instance, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has tried and failed for days to win the Speakership amid a rebellion from hard-right members of his own party.
“If you’ve looked at Washington over the past two years, it’s an advertisement to not run,” Heye said. “Clearly what we’re seeing on the House floor right now speaks to that candidate recruitment issue.”