With last night’s primary elections, the story of the Republicans’ risky approach to the 2024 election is clear: GOP voters want a party that is populist, but they are at odds over what kind of populist that needs to be.
The media’s framing of the 2024 narrative has been clear from the outset, and as per usual it’s the framing preferred by the Democratic Party. The entire lens of definition is Donald Trump. His endorsements supposedly reign supreme over a beholden GOP electorate, and this is leading them to nominate extreme, flawed, “election-denying” candidates who put their chances of taking the Senate and key battleground governorships at risk, even in what more honest pundits allow will be a wave year for Republicans in the House.
This glosses over the more complicated truth about the differences between these candidates in terms of substance and political allegiance. Some are truly anti-Washington, at odds with the unpopular party leadership of Mitch McConnell, while others only give lip service to anti-Washington tropes. Some represent a true break with the pre-Trump past of the GOP, while others are more interested in merely adapting to a new populist reality, giving up as little as possible of their pro-business support.
We saw the latter approach in last night’s result in Missouri, where DC Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief with the nomination of Attorney General Eric Schmitt to run for Senate and the dramatic underperformance of ultra-populist ex-governor Eric Greitens. A last-minute dual endorsement of “ERIC” by Trump, a compromise engineered after a year-long campaign backed by wealthy donors to prevent Trump’s endorsement of Greitens, robbed the former president of an easy endorsement win.
In Michigan, a similar result saw the elevation of Tudor Dixon, generally considered the least extreme candidate, to take on incumbent governor Gretchen Whitmer in a contest that polls indicated was briefly led by a man arrested over his actions on January 6. Dixon was then bashed by another opponent in an ad that accused her of being backed by “establishment Republicans” and “endorsed by the RINO establishment’s leading NeverTrumpers,” a reference to her support from the powerful Michigan DeVos family.
Two Senate races that will also see a shift in membership, if not in party, are the Republican seats in Alabama and Oklahoma. In the former, longtime Capitol Hill staffer and former head of the Business Council of Alabama Katie Britt is the nominee. She was backed by the business community and Trump after he withdrew his endorsement of the more typically Trumpian Mo Brooks. And in an Oklahoma Senate debate last night, heavily favored Representative Markwayne Mullin — the congressman who came closest to actually fighting the January 6 rioters and is more business friendly and moderate than most House Republicans — broke with his runoff challenger on just one major issue: a defense of his vote for funding for $41 billion in Ukraine-related military spending.
The attitude of some of these Republican candidates seems to be: why restrict your appeal to small donors when you can have big donors too? They have gone with populist messaging and presentation to win over diehard Trump supporters, but seek to build a wider base than that within the traditional Republican pre-2016 universe. If elected, they may govern under influences from all sides.
Add to this list two nominees in key Senate contests: Adam Laxalt in Nevada and Ted Budd in North Carolina, who consolidated support from both Trump and the likes of the well-funded conservative Club for Growth. The Club got a lot of attention for battling Trump’s choices in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but they also endorsed last night’s Arizona winner, tech executive Blake Masters. With a single-digit victory in a split race after most polls showed him ahead by fifteen points or more, Masters now becomes a key example of the need to consolidate the coalition of the right’s vote in November to unseat incumbent Mark Kelly.
In the coming months, the media attention is going to focus on the other kind of Senate and gubernatorial candidates: those with obvious flaws, or whose appeal is limited to the more Trumpian makeup of a populist electorate. The hackier commentators pushing this narrative have to be disappointed by the loss of Greitens, who would have given them a triumvirate of “awful” candidates elevated only due to their appeal to Trump, along with Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. They frame the former as dumb and unqualified, and the latter as flaky and insincere.
Underneath the surface of that Democratic-media narrative, Republicans remain the odds-on favorites to take the Senate back, with a definite edge toward a populist conservative tone. A GOP Senate that loses long-serving members like Alabama’s Richard Shelby, North Carolina’s Richard Burr, Missouri’s Roy Blunt, Ohio’s Rob Portman, Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey was always going to move the conference in a more populist-right direction. But a key unanswered question is: how anti-Washington will that new Senate really be?