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How the Senate G.O.P. Scored a Top Recruit and Widened Its Path to a Majority

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How the Senate G.O.P. Scored a Top Recruit and Widened Its Path to a Majority

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Larry Hogan might not be running for Senate this year but for a letter he received in early January.

The popular former Republican governor of Maryland had rebuffed years of entreaties and lobbying from a parade of powerful Republicans. But when he received an emailed letter from a lifelong Maryland resident on Jan. 8 making less an appeal to partisanship than a call to public service, Mr. Hogan responded within an hour — with an invitation via an aide for a private meeting in Annapolis.

The letter’s author, Darin Thacker, was no ordinary constituent. He’s the chief of staff to the chairman of the Senate G.O.P.’s campaign arm.

Once Mr. Hogan had cracked open what had seemed a shut door, Mr. Thacker quickly informed his boss of his personal outreach, setting in motion a frantic three-week sprint of private meetings and polling. Mr. Hogan ultimately made a dramatic surprise entrance into the race hours before a Feb. 9 filing deadline. The decision delivered a genuine jolt to a Senate landscape that was already heavily tilted toward Republicans in 2024.

“Without that letter, I don’t think Larry Hogan is in the race,” said Mr. Thacker’s boss, Senator Steve Daines of Montana, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. People close to Mr. Hogan agreed.

The Hogan recruitment served as a capstone to months of quiet success for Mr. Daines and Senate Republicans, after more than a decade filled with recruiting disappointments, misfires and downright self-sabotage.

Past efforts by the group to intervene in primaries have often caused infighting. Attempts to be more hands-off have backfired as well. The result has been a series of battered, broke and bad candidates who have underscored a yearslong power struggle between the party’s right-wing base and old-guard establishment. There was Christine O’Donnell’s denial that she was a witch in 2010, Roy Moore’s denial that he was a sexual predator in 2017 and Herschel Walker’s denial that he paid years ago for a woman’s abortion in 2022.

In 2024, the G.O.P. appears set to avert nasty primaries in several states, including Montana, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Mr. Daines has helped to bridge the G.O.P. divide, especially between the Donald J. Trump bloc of the party and the forces aligned with Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader who has not been on speaking terms with the former president since 2020. Mr. Daines was the top Senate Republican to endorse Mr. Trump in early 2023, forging a key alliance.

Mr. Daines traveled to Mar-a-Lago soon after his selection as Senate G.O.P. chairman and said he had told Mr. Trump that “one of the most important things we can deliver to you as president in January of 2025 is the Republican majority.” He has been in frequent contact with the Trump operation ever since.

Democrats already have no margin for error to maintain control of the Senate in 2024. The party currently holds 51 seats and functionally lost one already, when Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, retired in West Virginia. (His departure came after Republicans successfully recruited the state’s popular Republican governor, Jim Justice, to run against him).

Now Democrats would need to sweep every remaining competitive contest just to hold onto a bare minimum of 50 seats. The party is defending two seats in red states (Ohio and Montana) as well as in a slew of presidential battlegrounds (Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania). Maryland is widely seen as a reach for Republicans but is no longer a state that Democrats can simply ignore.

No Republican-held Senate seats are currently seen as endangered.

“Of course, the odds are against you when you need to run the table,” said Justin Barasky, a Democratic strategist who works on Senate races. But he noted that the party “just did that last election,” gaining one seat in 2022 when losses had been widely projected.

The McConnell team had chafed badly with the previous chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senator Rick Scott of Florida. He had taken a noninterventionist approach but had worked closely with the Daines team. Mr. Daines has brought a disarmingly simple philosophy to candidate recruitment.

“It’s finding candidates that can win both primaries and general elections,” he said.

In some instances, that formula has translated into strong-arming out more extreme candidates. In Pennsylvania, Mr. Daines publicly blasted Doug Mastriano, a failed 2022 candidate for governor, while other G.O.P. senators lobbied the state party to back David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who lost a Senate primary in 2022.

In others, the strategy of recruiting candidates capable of winning both the primary and general election has meant acquiescing to the Republican base. In Arizona, the party is now backing Kari Lake, who lost a bid for governor and made denying the 2020 election result a central plank of her candidacy.

In Ohio, the party has stayed entirely out of the primary, making an argument that all three leading Republicans could topple Senator Sherrod Brown, the Democratic incumbent, in the increasingly conservative state. That primary also has the benefit of being very early in the year — March 19 — allowing the eventual nominee ample time to campaign against Mr. Brown.

Perhaps the best test case has been Montana, Mr. Daines’s own state and home to one of the nation’s most pivotal Senate races: the battle for Senator Jon Tester’s seat. Mr. Tester has proved a durable Democrat in a conservative state.

Mr. Daines recruited Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and a business owner, introducing him to the former president at Mr. Trump’s Bedminster property and bringing him to a Trump rally in South Dakota. Mr. Sheehy met again with the former president in Nevada the day before Representative Matt Rosendale, a right-wing alternative whom the Daines team had publicly argued was unelectable, entered the race.

Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Sheehy that next day and instantly deflated Mr. Rosendale’s candidacy. He soon quit the race.

Steven Law, who leads the main Senate Republican super PAC, called the endorsement “a cannonball in the shallow side of the pool.”

“That was decisive,” Mr. Law said, “and 100 percent the result of Senator Daines cultivating that relationship with President Trump.”

The one-two combination of Mr. Hogan’s entry and the Sheehy endorsement — on the same day — was a cause for celebration at the National Republican Senatorial Committee donor retreat at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. Some officials popped champagne.

Mr. Barasky, the Democratic strategist, said that Republicans were celebrating far too soon.

“They’ve mistakenly thought they would fix their candidate quality problems by recruiting candidates that have tenuous ties or no ties to the state they are running in,” Mr. Barasky said, referring to Mr. Sheehy and Mr. McCormick.

For Republicans, the tone was set away from the battleground map, in Indiana, which had one of 2024’s earliest Senate seats without an incumbent running.

Representative Jim Banks jumped into the race quickly. He was a favorite of the anti-tax group Club for Growth, which has often sparred with the Senate G.O.P. leadership, and of the Trump family, including Donald Trump Jr. Indiana’s former governor, Mitchell E. Daniels, was considering a run and fit the mold of a traditional recruit, and he made a trip to Washington to discuss a potential run with Mr. McConnell.

That same day, Mr. Daines met with Donald Trump Jr. at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington. (“We fish and hunt together,” Mr. Daines said of their relationship). The message was clearly communicated that month that the party would back Mr. Banks, and Mr. Daniels opted against a run.

Josh Holmes, a longtime top political adviser to Mr. McConnell, said that Mr. Daines’s early backing of the former president had proved “really smart.”

“In order to succeed in that job you need to be able to clearly communicate with every constituency in the party, and the biggest constituency is Trump,” Mr. Holmes said.

Mr. Holmes has been a go-between recently in talks for a McConnell endorsement of Mr. Trump and was also part of the Hogan recruitment, traveling to Annapolis in the final days before the filing deadline.

Mr. Thacker’s letter, which was first reported by The Washington Post, had just been the start. The Senate G.O.P. quickly commissioned a poll, which Mr. Thacker brought to Annapolis on Jan. 17 showing Mr. Hogan ahead, giving Republicans a chance to flip a Senate seat in Maryland for the first time in a generation.

But Mr. Hogan, who declined to comment through a spokesman, wanted his own pollster to weigh in, so the party paid for a second survey. Still, Mr. Hogan considered his options until the final days.

Mr. Hogan had previously floated running for president in 2024 on the No Labels ticket, which could have complicated Mr. Trump’s run. The former president is not expected to comment on Mr. Hogan’s Senate candidacy, as Axios reported, though Mr. Hogan has been sharply critical of Mr. Trump in the past.

Democrats remain confident that Maryland won’t prove competitive. David Bergstein, the communications director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, noted that Democrats have won every Senate race there for more than 40 years. “A vote for Larry Hogan is a vote to put Mitch McConnell in charge of the Senate, and that’s a losing argument in this state,” he said.

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