WASHINGTON – A football legend who held a gun to his ex-wife’s head. Rivals who nearly brawled during a televised debate. A venture capitalist who voiced sympathy for the Unabomber.
And that's just to name a few.
Republican Senate primaries in several pivotal states last year exuded a carnival-like aura, dominated by far-right candidates whose ill-advised remarks and damaging personal baggage ultimately cost the party its chance of retaking a majority. But even as alarms sounded over a growing crisis of electability, party leaders mostly stood by, including Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the Senate GOP's campaign chief, who insisted on remaining neutral in the nominating contests.
Now, at the dawn of the 2024 campaign season, Republicans say they are taking steps to avoid a repeat. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which Scott formerly led, intends to wade into party primaries in key states, providing resources to its preferred candidates in a bid to produce nominees who are more palatable to general election voters.
It may be easier said than done. Similar efforts have backfired in recent years, with the party's restive base rejecting the attempts. The new push will test anew whether the GOP establishment can steer a party reshaped by Donald Trump's insurgent presidency back to mainstream appeal.
"One thing I kept hearing when I took this job was that Republicans are sick and tired of losing," said Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, the new chairman of the NRSC. "This is our last chance this decade to target red-state Democrats, so we’re going to do whatever it takes to recruit candidates who can win both a primary and general election.”
The new approach was on display this month during an NRSC retreat at the Breakers, a luxury resort in Palm Beach, Florida, which drew senators and potential candidates, including Dave McCormick. The hedge fund CEO narrowly lost Pennsylvania's 2022 Republican Senate primary to Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Trump-backed TV personality who was defeated in the general election by Democrat John Fetterman by roughly 5 percentage points.
McCormick, who is considering another run in 2024, spoke at the multiday event, according to two senior Republican strategists, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the details of the private gathering.
Later, before a crowded banquet room that included at least one other potential rival for the Pennsylvania seat, Daines singled out McCormick with praise, saying he would make an excellent candidate, according to one of the strategists.
If he enters the primary, McCormick has also been promised support from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that spends millions of dollars on TV advertising, according to two other Republican strategists familiar with the matter.
That serves as a warning to anyone else thinking about the race: If McCormick gets in, he would have the full weight and resources of the Senate Republican campaign operation behind him.
Another example of recent intervention is the committee's early endorsement of Rep. Jim Banks in Indiana's Senate primary. Though Indiana is reliably Republican, a crowded primary, like in 2018, could sap resources better spent in competitive states. Banks has yet to draw a serious competitor.
The move could also be viewed as a show of good faith to Trump, as well as the conservative group Club for Growth, who have often worked at cross-purposes with Republican Senate leaders. Banks is close with Donald Trump Jr., Trump's oldest son, and he has also been championed by Club for Growth.
Some Republicans contrast the new approach the NRSC intends to take with that of Scott. Consider his handling of Colorado's Senate primary in 2022. Joe O'Dea, a moderate Republican and construction company owner, was viewed by many as the kind of candidate who could win in the onetime swing state during a good year for the GOP.
But Scott pointedly declined to endorse O'Dea during a trip to the state, while also offering praise for O'Dea's rival, a state legislator who espoused conspiracy theories, crossed police lines at the U.S. Capitol during the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection and struggled to raise campaign cash.
O'Dea ultimately lost the general election by nearly 15 percentage points. But the incident offers an example of power centers within the party working at cross purposes — in this case, Scott declining to get behind a candidate many viewed as the party's only chance to win.
It also helped fuel a feud between Scott and McConnell, which sowed chaos throughout the Senate Republican campaign effort and culminated in a failed challenge by Scott of McConnell's position as Senate leader.
A spokesman for Scott declined to comment. Scott previously said that “the nice thing” about the campaign chief job is that “everybody gets to try what they believe works,” while calling for the party to stay out of primaries and "let the voters do it.”
In a statement, Josh Holmes, a top McConnell adviser, offered praise for Daines' leadership of the committee, which Daines took over late last year.
“Leader McConnell enthusiastically supports Senator Daines and his effort to help recapture the majority,” Holmes said. He “has a high level of confidence in his ability to deliver the best candidate for every race across the map.”
Yet there are limits to what the NRSC can do. Trump, who remains a potent force in GOP politics, was largely successful pushing a slate of far-right candidates in marquee Senate primaries last year. With his third bid for the White House now underway, it's unclear whether he intends to do the same in 2024.
Beyond recruiting candidates, the NRSC also plans to conduct media training. In some cases it intends to stay out of primaries in which its involvement could become a liability. It also plans to lend fundraising assistance, help candidates build out their infrastructure and keep tabs on whether its candidates are running competent digital operations.
That's basic politics and may sound obvious. But many of the first-time candidates running during last year's midterms failed to pay attention to such details, ultimately requiring last-minute intervention from the party ahead of the general election.
Former NFL star Herschel Walker struggled on the campaign trail to address his messy personal life, including allegations of domestic abuse and children he fathered and largely abandoned.
Lackluster fundraising by then-Senate candidate J.D. Vance in Ohio forced a bailout from the Senate Leadership Fund, which spent millions of dollars on TV advertising on his behalf on his ultimately successful campaign. In the primary, Vance bested two rivals who nearly came to blows in a debate. One of them, Mike Gibbons, is viewed as a potential contender in the state's 2024 contest.
Then there is Arizona candidate Blake Masters, who excelled in the primary thanks to an endorsement from Trump and $15 million that his mentor, tech billionaire Peter Thiel, invested in a pro-Masters super PAC.
In the general election, however, Democrats seized on past comments made by Masters, and voters recoiled. Those comments included sympathetic remarks made by Masters about the Unabomber as well as his calls for privatizing Social Security in a state with an outsize share of voters who rely on the program. Masters was also out-fundraised nearly 8-1 in the general election. The party eventually cut him loose, and he lost by the greatest margin of any Republican running statewide.
“We need people running who can win,” said Steven Law, the CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund. "We’re raising the resources to ensure we have quality candidates.”
Recent history indicates those efforts don’t always work out.
Luther Strange, who had the party’s backing in 2017, lost a fierce Senate primary to Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who was credibly accused of sexual misconduct, including pursuing relationships with teenagers when he was in his 30s.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, a far-right purveyor of conspiracy theories, won his primary last year in New Hampshire even after a super PAC financed by Law's Senate Leadership Fund spent $4.6 million against him, campaign finance disclosures show.
Even Walker, perhaps one of the most disastrous Republican candidates in recent memory, was endorsed by McConnell and other top Republicans before the primary.
“Let’s not get caught in the assumption that the only thing that determines who candidates are is Mitch McConnell and the NRSC,” said J.B. Poersch, who leads Senate Democrats’ main super PAC. “These are not stupid people, and they have a lot of experience. But there seems to be denial about who their party is and where they are currently. The MAGA right is also part of this process.”
___ Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.