Red-state rodeos to set GOP’s 2024 Senate chances
Montana stretches for 147,000 square miles. That still might not be enough room for the ambitions of its two GOP House members.
Rep. Matt Rosendale and Rep.-elect Ryan Zinke are weighing whether to run against each other for the right to challenge Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), one of four marquee red-state Senate races taking shape in 2024. For Rosendale and Zinke, it could mean a rematch of their 2014 House GOP primary battle, when Zinke narrowly dispatched Rosendale.
Currently, Big Sky Country has two House seats — but there will be only one nominee to take on Tester.
The Montanans’ potential matchup is a microcosm of the national dynamic heading into 2024. As Senate Democrats grapple with a daunting map and a handful of undecided incumbents, ambitious Republicans are already angling for Democratic-held seats in West Virginia, Ohio and Montana as well as an open GOP seat in Indiana.
“I was hired to do this job and Trump asked me three times to run,” said Zinke, who’s returning next year to the House stomping grounds that he left in 2017 to head then-President Donald Trump’s Interior Department. “I'm gonna make the decision after we get this budget through … If it happens, it happens. There's plenty of time.”
With a narrowly divided Senate assured next year, the battle for control will center around the GOP’s effort to defeat Tester, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). If Republicans win two of those three races, they are highly likely to make up the majority, even if Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) is reelected on Tuesday.
Despite the built-in Republican advantage, Tester, Manchin and Brown are a surprisingly durable trio who survived in 2012 and 2018. Which means the GOP can’t afford to get it wrong. Rosendale lost to Tester in 2018, and Zinke resigned as Interior secretary amid a cloud of scandal.
“Jon Tester does not represent the people of Montana and needs to be replaced. And who actually is the best candidate to take care of that, I’m sure, will be determined and established over the next [12 to] 18 months,” Rosendale said when repeatedly pressed about a possible challenge to Tester.
Whoever wins the GOP nomination will get extra attention: Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is set to chair the National Republican Senatorial Committee next cycle and said his home state will host “one of the top races in the country.” Tester predicted the opposing party would try and avoid a contested primary.
“I think it will be Zinke or Rosendale. And I think they’ll clear the field,” Tester said.
As good an opportunity as Montana is for Republicans, West Virginia is more enticing: Trump carried the state by about 39 percentage points in 2020.
Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) is already in against Manchin, who says he will decide next year whether to run for another term. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is signaling he won’t be deterred by Mooney’s early entrance.
“We continue to look very seriously at our options and know that whatever race we pursue, we will be in a very strong position to win,” Morrisey said. “We have a conservative record of accomplishment that is second to none of any potential candidates [and] will have as much or more resources than potential opponents.”
If Morrisey gets the nod, it could be a rematch; he lost narrowly to Manchin in 2018. But this time around, outgoing Gov. Jim Justice is also kicking the tires on a run, which Manchin called “very interesting.” As for Mooney, Manchin said, “his only purpose being in West Virginia is to run for political office.”
Mooney moved to the state from Maryland, but nonetheless won a contested primary against Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) this year. West Virginia's other House Republican, Rep. Carol Miller , said she has no plans to run for the Senate.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she expected that Mooney would have company in a 2024 primary. The chance to claim what could become a safe Republican seat whenever Manchin retires or is defeated is simply too attractive to resist.
“It's obviously looking like a good Republican year in 2024 in our state. So there’s going to be more interest,” said Capito, who added that she will remain neutral in the primary.
Across the border in Ohio, meanwhile, retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman said he has already met with three potential candidates who are mulling a run against Brown. Unlike Tester and Manchin, Brown already announced his campaign for a fourth term, and the GOP struggled against him in the past. Brown won all three of his Senate races by 6 points or more.
Already some candidates from this year's race to replace Portman are drawing interest, like state senator Matt Dolan and businessman Bernie Moreno. And some Republicans in the Buckeye State see Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose as a frontrunner, given his rapport with former President Donald Trump. And one Ohio Republican said LaRose is beginning to place calls on a potential run.
Another Ohio Republican, who addressed the still-unformed field on condition of anonymity, said LaRose would also benefit from his relationship with Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Governor Jon Husted: “They are all buddies, and I don't think anybody else has that.”
But still, there’s more.
“It's fair to say that I will be weighing it,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said of a future Senate campaign. “Once we get our momentum going there [in the House], I do plan to take a look at it.”
Another crowded Senate race is brewing in Indiana, with GOP Sen. Mike Braun preparing to launch a gubernatorial bid. That creates a clear lane to the upper chamber for whichever ambitious Hoosier prevails in a primary: Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Indiana since 2012.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) is weighing a run, which seems increasingly inevitable following his loss for the House Republican whip job. His office says he is seriously considering it . And Banks is speaking with county chairs about his aspirations, according to a Republican familiar with the matter.
“If a Senate seat opens up in 2024, Banks would be hard to beat,” said Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.). “He has the conservative record, statewide network and fundraising ability that it takes to win.”
Other Indiana Republicans predicted Banks could edge out Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) if she decides to run. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is also weighing a bid for either the governor’s seat or the Senate, according to two Republicans familiar with the matter. Rokita lost to Braun in the 2018 primary.
Republicans are also looking at Jennifer-Ruth Green, a 2022 House candidate who lost a battleground race. And the party is keeping an eye on retiring Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.) for a potential Senate or gubernatorial bid.
Then there’s an entire tier of 2024 races against Democrats who represent tougher terrain for the GOP: Sens. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Most of those senators have signaled they are running again, and none of them will be easy to defeat in a presidential year.
That’s what makes Montana, West Virginia and Ohio so important if Republicans want to take the majority in two years. Zinke said Tester once bet him that they'd end up facing each other. After passing on the 2018 race, Zinke said: “Jon Tester owes me a steak dinner.”
But Tester isn’t paying up until the next primary comes and goes.
“The bet was that he’s not going to run against me,” Tester said. “There was no date associated with it.”