Kari Lake – the unapologetic supporter of former President Donald Trump and vanquished candidate for Arizona governor – privately made a trip to National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters in February where she discussed the prospects of shaking up the map and running for Senate.
But Lake, who has faced blowback over pushing baseless accusations of election fraud, was given this suggestion from NRSC officials: Shift to more effective messaging and away from claims about a stolen election, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The meeting, which was described as a positive one, focused on how Senate bids often turn on issues that are different than governor’s races, multiple sources said. Top Republicans quietly acknowledge Lake could become a frontrunner if she runs in the primary, hoping to steer her towards a viable campaign if she mounts one, even as Arizona’s Pinal County sheriff is expected to soon jump into the race while independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema actively prepares a reelection bid herself.
And that’s just one state.
The Arizona race is one of several landmines that Republican leaders are navigating as they work behind the scenes to avoid a repeat of the 2022 debacle that saw weaker candidates emerge from contested primaries – only to peter out and collapse in the general election and hand Democrats a 51-49 Senate majority. Several of those candidates were backed by Trump as the NRSC – run at the time by Florida Sen. Rick Scott – opted to stay away from Republican primaries.
Now, the NRSC – run by Sen. Steve Daines of Montana – has taken a much more hands-on approach to primaries, actively working on candidate recruitment and vetting. And the committee is weighing whether to spend big bucks in primaries to help root out weaker candidates, a move that risks setting up a clash with hard-right candidates aligning themselves with Trump.
“You need to learn from your past mistakes,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, told CNN. “If you don’t make adjustments, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, it’s insanity.”
Privately, Daines has spoken multiple times with Trump and has been in touch with his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., while national Republicans point to the NRSC’s early endorsement and fundraising for Rep. Jim Banks in the Indiana Senate race as an example of how the party’s warring wings can try to avoid messy primaries.
The goal, GOP sources say, is to keep Trump aligned with Republican leadership – even as the former president has furiously attacked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the aftermath of the Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, and as the Senate GOP leader has stayed silent amid the former president’s indictment on 34 felony charges in New York. Daines, however, has been vocal in his defense of Trump.
“I have a very good relationship with the president. We talk, and it’s no secret we’ve been friends for a long time,” Daines told CNN when asked about the Senate races. “And he provides great insights. And I also provide my thoughts as well. And we have open lines of communication.”
Daines added: “Wherever we can find common ground is a good thing.”
That relationship could be put to the test in key battleground states. In West Virginia, Republican leaders are preparing to close ranks behind Gov. Jim Justice, who is seriously weighing a run for the seat occupied by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. A Justice bid would put him against Rep. Alex Mooney, who had won Trump’s backing in a competitive House race in the last cycle but now has the support of the conservative Club for Growth’s political arm.
In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano – the controversial candidate who lost a bid for governor last fall but had the support of Trump in the primary – says he’s “still praying” on whether to mount a bid for the Senate, something Republicans in Washington fear. The NRSC plans to put its muscle behind the potential candidacy of David McCormick, the hedge fund executive who narrowly lost the Pennsylvania Senate GOP primary in 2022, according to Republican sources who view him as their best bet at picking up the seat next year.
“I haven’t decided yet on 2024. I’m thinking about it,” McCormick told CNN. “You run for office … because you think you have something to contribute. You think it’s a moment where you might be able to serve, and if you lose, that motivation doesn’t necessarily go away.”
And in Montana, Rep. Matt Rosendale, a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, is weighing a run in a race that could put him up against two other potential candidates viewed by senior Republicans as more electable – Montana attorney general Austin Knudsen and businessman Tim Sheehy – against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. Rosendale attended an event last Tuesday in Mar-a-Lago following Trump’s arraignment in New York, a sign one Trump adviser saw as an effort to secure an endorsement ahead of a potential bid.
Rosendale told CNN he’s in no rush to make a decision.
“We’re just taking a nice slow time to let the people in Montana decide who they want to replace him with,” Rosendale said of Tester. “I feel very sure he will be replaced.” He added that Daines “is my senator” and that “I see him regularly.”
Tester contended that the Republican nominee makes little difference to him.
“I think the person who runs against me is the person McConnell chooses,” Tester said. “Whoever that is, I don’t think it matters much: Same election.”
Top Republicans say they will have to make key strategic decisions on how to engage in some of these races – or whether to stay out altogether, as they might in Ohio as party leaders view the emerging field as full of electable candidates against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
If they come in too aggressively, it could prompt blowback and rally the right behind a potentially weaker candidate. But if they disengage, they could see their favored candidate struggle to gain traction.
In Wisconsin, Republican officials are urging Rep. Mike Gallagher to run, though he could face a potential primary there as well, as former Senate candidate Eric Hovde and others weigh a run. Gallagher, who is chairing a House panel focused on China, said of a potential run against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin: “I’m not thinking about it at present,” citing his legislative work and family commitments. But he left the door open.
“I’d never conceived of this as a long-term thing; I don’t think Congress should be a career,” Gallagher said, adding: “I’m going to weigh all those factors and see where I can make the best impact.”
‘People are tired of losing’
In interviews with roughly a dozen top senators, nearly all of them agreed they need to be hyper-focused this cycle on helping candidates who can win not only a primary election, but a general election — repeatedly referencing “candidate quality” as their 2024 motto.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of Senate GOP leadership and former NRSC chairman, has long had to contend with primary fights between the party establishment and activist base – battles that had effectively cost them the chance at the Senate majority in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, in addition to 2022.
“It never goes away,” Cornyn said of the primary complications. “Republicans need to make up their mind. Do we want to win, or do we want to lose? And I think that it’s that simple, and I think people are tired of losing.”
Yet some on the right are warning against party leaders picking and choosing their candidates – including Scott, who defends his hands-off approach in the last cycle.
“I believe the citizens of the state ought to pick,” Scott said, adding: “A lot of these weaker candidates often are the ones who actually win. I was not the establishment candidate.”
Scott’s fellow Florida Republican, Marco Rubio, was not backed by the NRSC in the 2010 election cycle. But he galvanized the GOP base and defeated Charlie Crist, who later became a Democrat.
“I’m not a big believer that you can determine who the weaker candidate is. A lot of people up here then would not have been their choice,” Rubio told CNN. “Obviously there might be some exceptions here or there, but generally the NRSC should be engaged in helping whoever the Republican nominee is to win the general election.”
Unlike the last cycle — when the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund and the Rick Scott-run NRSC clashed publicly over the approach to expanding the Senate map — this time, the two committees are largely aligned. Republicans are betting that their preferred chances will vastly improve with the help of big donors and nationwide fundraising – and potentially an aggressive ad campaign in the primary to derail weaker opponents.
“As we look across the country and look at different traces, it’s pretty straightforward,” Daines said. “We want to see candidates who can win a primary election and also win a general.”
The map heavily favors the GOP – with 23 Democratic and independent seats in cycle compared to just 11 Republicans facing re-election. But Republicans, burnt by their past failures, are well aware that defeating an incumbent is a difficult task and could grow more challenging in a presidential election year, especially in swing states if Trump is the nominee. Behind the scenes, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is trying to limit Democratic retirements.
And Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was skeptical that a more aggressive GOP intervention from Washington would solve Republican woes.
“I’m not sure who the Republicans will put forward as their nominees, but normally the folks who get to determine who the nominee is are the voters in those individual states in the primaries,” Peters said in an interview. “If we look at what happened last cycle, those primary voters tended to pick highly flawed candidates, and I expect that will happen again.”
Sinema prepares for a run and Republicans look past Lake
The fight for the seat occupied by Sinema has quickly emerged as the messiest affair – for both parties.
Sinema’s recent change in party identification — switching from a Democrat to an independent — poses a fresh challenge that party leaders will have to navigate, as it could set up an unpredictable three-way race. Sinema has not yet said if she will run again, but she has been raising enormous sums in preparation for a potential bid and has been meeting with strategists and advisers to map out plans for a possible campaign.
And Democratic leaders are worried that backing a fellow Democrat in the primary could end up alienating Sinema and potentially lead her to caucus with the GOP, forcing them to stay neutral for now.
“She’s a very effective legislator,” Schumer, who so far is neutral in the race, said when asked about Sinema recently.
On the GOP side, several candidates who tried — and failed — to win statewide races last cycle are also complicating that strategy, making it a key source of anxiety among many top Republicans and the Senate committees, according to Republican sources.
Those candidates include Lake and the 2020 Senate GOP nominee, Blake Masters, two of the most Trumpian candidates who lost last year. Both Lake and Masters garnered enormous support among the GOP base for leaning into 2020 election denials and the populist ideals that Trump touted throughout his presidency. Masters has discussed a potential 2024 Senate bid with several Republicans, though it’s unclear whether he will run, GOP sources say.
Lake met with the NRSC for roughly an hour in February and is expected to meet with them again in the coming weeks, sources familiar with the meeting told CNN. The issue of focusing on claims of a stolen election was one point discussed at the meeting, the sources said.
“The point that has been brought up, which Kari knows, is that the issue sets are different from a governor’s race. She knows you can’t run on that because it’s not something, as a senator, that you can fix,” a source close to Lake said, referencing her rhetoric around stolen elections. “The conversation was more about how the issues are different between a governor’s race and a Senate race.”
Senior Republicans acknowledge that her ultimate decision on whether to enter the race could freeze out other candidates, particularly those wanting to run in the same lane, with the source close to Lake saying establishment-minded Republicans have been reaching out to her about a potential run. The source said Lake has a 200,000-plus donor list she could pull support from and believes she would have “widespread support” if she decides to run.
But many in the top ranks are skeptical about her chances.
“If you take a look at the race, where Sen. Sinema is probably going to take some of the right, left and center, it’s going to make for a difficult path for a Republican in that state in any scenario,” North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis told CNN. “The party there is, I think, set on Lake if she decides to run with it, but, I mean, we just have to see how well she performs.”
Tillis added that, given the “three-way race dynamic,” Lake “is not going to be able to make a lot of headway there.”
Cornyn said of Lake: “Her recent track record doesn’t indicate that she would be successful. We need candidates who can broaden their appeal beyond the base and win a general.”
Masters, meanwhile, has quietly reached out to some advisers about what another Senate run would look like and has spoken with some senior GOP officials about a 2024 run.
Other potential GOP candidates include Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who is expected to announce a Senate run as soon as this week and is viewed favorably by some top Republicans, according to GOP sources. Abe Hamadeh, formerly the Republican nominee for Arizona attorney general, is also weighing a run. And both Lamb and Hamadeh met recently with NRSC officials, but they have not met directly with Daines, according to a source familiar with the meetings.
Two other Republicans, Jim Lamon and Karrin Taylor Robson, are also considering jumping into the race, sources familiar with the matter say. Lamon and Robson, who ran in 2022 for Senate and governor respectively, did not receive Trump’s support.
Robson recently met with the NRSC, and many within the GOP committee “like her and see her as a quality candidate,” a source familiar with the meeting said. Lamon has not yet met with the NRSC, but is expected to set up a meeting in the coming months.
Arizona’s Senate primary is not until August 6, 2024, and the filing deadline to enter is April 8, 2024 — giving them a long runway to decide whether or not to run — further complicating GOP leadership’s calculus on how to navigate the race dynamics.
“I just think we’re, we’re more likely to get people elected if they’re focused on the future, as opposed to focusing on what happened in 2020,” Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican of Utah, said when asked about a potential Lake candidacy. “I think the American people have made their judgment about the election and want to move on. So, let’s talk about the future and where we’re headed, and if we’ve got a candidate that is consumed with his or her past, it’s most likely a losing candidate.”
Caroline Wren, a senior adviser to Lake, told CNN, “There’s no doubt Kari Lake is a formidable force in the Republican party right now, but she’s still focused on her lawsuit in Arizona,” referring to her efforts to dispute her loss in the governor’s race.
Rubio said that Lake could be a strong Senate candidate, despite her shortfall last year.
“She was a very competitive candidate. I think I trust the Republican voters in Arizona to pick the nominee,” Rubio said. “I don’t think Washington should be stepping in to do it.”
But Democrats believe that a Lake candidacy will only bolster their chances, even if Sinema decides to run.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, the Arizona Democrat running for his party’s nomination in the Senate race, suggested to CNN he was praying for a Lake candidacy.
“I’m a practicing Catholic – so I have these votive candles for different things,” Gallego said. “I have a special candle for Kari Lake to jump in.”
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer and Kit Maher contributed.