Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

When Senate GOP campaign chief Steve Daines trekked to South Dakota earlier this month to introduce former President Donald Trump at a rally, he also had another mission: To sell the former president on one of his prized Senate recruits, Montana business executive Tim Sheehy.

The cross-state journey to give Trump facetime with the establishment-backed Sheehy is an essential part of Daines’ monthslong gambit to forge a strategic partnership with the former president as he tries to oust red-state Democrats. It’s also an attempted course correction for the National Republican Senatorial Committee after Trump’s obsession with his election loss in 2020 and his endorsements of shaky candidates helped relegate the GOP to the minority for the last two cycles.

With a very favorable map in front of them, Republicans’ success hinges on whether Trump marches in the same direction of the NRSC, which under Daines is taking a far more heavy-handed approach in primaries than it has in years. If Trump endorses Daines’ preferred candidates like Sheehy or West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, or at least stays neutral, it could make all the difference for the GOP’s chances.

“I have a strong relationship with President Trump, a strong relationship with Mitch McConnell,” Daines said in an interview at his NRSC office. “The common objective they both have is to win control of the United States Senate back and put it back in Republican hands.”

Daines endorsed Trump early on a podcast hosted by his son Don, with whom he has been friends for years. And he said he speaks with the former president frequently, “working closely together, collaboratively on finding candidates that can win both primaries and generals.”

So far, the former president has adopted a more restrained stance this cycle when it comes to Senate endorsements, backing only Rep. Jim Banks in Indiana. The NRSC also endorsed Banks, helping head off a tough primary in a deep-red state.

“When the entire DC establishment was trying to force feed a RINO down our throats in Indiana, Daines stood up for conservatives and helped unite the party behind Jim Banks’ campaign for Senate,” Donald Trump Jr. said in a statement.

Daines’ effort to head off endorsements of weak candidates is all the more notable because McConnell has ignored Trump after the events of Jan. 6. That puts more of an onus on Daines, since the Senate GOP leader is done working with Trump.

Just a few days after Trump and Sheehy hobnobbed on the tarmac, Sheehy came to Washington to fundraise at the NRSC and meet Republican senators — including plenty who don’t like Trump and want a different nominee.

Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who chaired the NRSC in 2020, said he’s confident in Daines and praised him for recruiting “quality candidates” and raising money. But Young said he knows from experience that the chairman job at times boils down to working “to ensure the sensibilities and ego of an 80-year-old man are attended to,” referring to Trump’s whims. As to how his own partnership with Trump worked out, Young surmised: “President Trump lost the United States Senate in 2020.”

“He was concerned about himself, and harboring and indulging his own grudges far more than he was advancing values that are important to Republicans. I see no evidence that President Trump has changed,” Young said in an interview.

Young is now looking for a presidential candidate who can beat Trump and compete better in a general election. Daines, however, has strategically courted Trump for months, starting with his endorsement in April.

While Daines and Trump enjoy a warm relationship, the senator is not the only person advising the former president. Trump has seen polling that shows Sheehy trailing badly in a potential primary, according to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). Gaetz is an ally of Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), the 2018 nominee who is preparing another run — to the displeasure of Senate GOP leaders he once supported.

“I’ve encouraged President Trump to support the anti-McConnell Republican in the race, Matt Rosendale,” Gaetz said, stressing that the polling “cuts against what some McConnell allies have told him.”

Republicans think Trump can help them oust battle-tested Democratic incumbents in Ohio, West Virginia and Montana, given the former president’s popularity in those states. But there are open questions of how much Trump helps the party in other places.

A crucial part of Daines’ strategy is expanding the map by lining up compelling recruits in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada — all tough states for Republicans. Daines argues that Trump is the only Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin since the 1980s, and that it’s premature to “say that Trump is going to be a drag on the ticket in those states.”

In two of those states, Daines’ recruits have spoken critically of Trump: David McCormick, who will launch his campaign in Pennsylvania this week, and Mike Rogers in Michigan. The campaign chairman said he’s optimistic the president will see they are the strongest candidates in their respective primary fields. Rogers could face former Rep. Peter Meijer, who lost reelection in 2022 after voting to impeach Trump — something Daines appeared to suggest could be an issue.

“Can he win a primary and a general election? That’s always the question,” Daines said of Meijer. “Mike Rogers is best positioned to be able to do both.”

The Daines/Trump alliance gives Trump an ally in Senate leadership and possibly recruits that can boost the ticket in tough battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. In turn, Trump’s team is focused most on helping in red states that will determine control of the Senate and make Daines a successful chairman, according to a person close to the campaign.

“You get a lot of cross winds in that job at the state and at the national level, but I give him high marks,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former two-term NRSC chair, said of Daines. “In West Virginia and Montana and Ohio we have a good shot regardless of who is at the top of the ticket.”

The former president is fond of Daines, and believes him to be discreet and a straight shooter, according to the person close to the Trump campaign. He uses him as a sounding board on political and policy matters. Their staffs talk often and Daines praised Trump operatives Susie Wiles, Brian Jack and Chris LaCivita.

“They’re a seasoned and savvy political team and we have frequent conversations,” he said. “The objective is winning and we always bring it back to that.”

Democrats are skeptical. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a vice-chair at Democrats’ campaign arm, deadpanned of Trump: “He’s not the most reliable partner.”

Still, there is plenty of history between Trump and Daines, who joined the Senate in 2014 and six years later beat back a challenge from then-Gov. Steve Bullock. The two campaigned together to try and oust Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) in 2018, and Daines initially planned to object to President Joe Biden’s election win in 2021, though he pulled back after the insurrection. Rather than focus on 2020, Daines says “voters are ready to start talking more about the future” this cycle.

Daines said the NRSC operatives and Trump’s team discuss how to dissuade candidates the Republicans want to keep out of primaries — or at least ensure Trump doesn’t back someone who might lose a general election. In West Virginia, for example, Trump has spoken to Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) and informed him that he would likely not endorse him, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

Republicans are hopeful that Trump at least ends up taking a similarly neutral stances toward Blake Masters in Arizona and Rosendale in Montana; Masters’ plans to run in Arizona are now on hold as Kari Lake preps her entry into the Senate race in the coming weeks, according to a Republican familiar with the dynamics.

When the two met in South Dakota, Daines said Sheehy and Trump had “good discussions” and “a fair amount of time to spend talking with each other.” The person close to the Trump campaign described it as a cordial conversation.

But even then Trump is a wild card, and everyone in the Senate knows it.

“Perhaps there is some sort of calculation by President Trump that in the midst of his own campaign, it might be better for him not to indulge his own narcissism and grudges as much, in furtherance of his own candidacy,” Young said. “But I would only speculate.”

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