Why Control of the Senate Hinges on Don Jr.’s Hunting Buddy

In the 2022 midterms, Donald Trump made life hell for Republican Party leaders trying to take back the Senate and win governor’s races in swing states like Arizona and Pennsylvania. In multiple primaries, the MAGA king backed unfit, unappealing players who bent the knee to him and then belly-flopped in the November elections. Remember Herschel Walker? Don Bolduc? Blake Masters? Dr. Oz?

One of the most interesting developments in Republican politics this election cycle is that Senate leaders have clearly learned some lessons from Mr. Trump’s lousy taste in candidates. After losing the House in 2018 and the Senate in 2020, then watching their anticipated red wave flatten out in 2022, Republicans are figuring out how to handle Mr. Trump better — in some cases even deploying him to advance not-so-MAGAish candidates with a good shot at winning in not-so-MAGAish states.

Whatever myriad factors were at play in 2022 (abortion rights, anyone?), a big part of the problem was embarrassingly basic: “candidate quality,” as the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell delicately put it. If Republicans wind up controlling the Senate next year, it will be because they heeded their Grim Reaper from Kentucky.

Sick of all the losing, Senate Republicans got working on quality control for 2024 before their 2022 tears had even dried. They recruited candidates in several states who had broader appeal than the previous bunch, dispatched (or at least neutered) some of their more problematic (read: unhinged) aspirants and — here’s the real kicker — kept the former president feeling heard, appreciated and important enough to deter him from making so much mischief.

Let us pause here to stress that the MAGA king is still making the Senate trail bumpy. On Tuesday, Ohio Republicans picked Bernie Moreno, a businessman blessed by Mr. Trump, to challenge the Democratic senator Sherrod Brown in November. In the final weeks of his campaign against two Republican rivals, Mr. Moreno leaned into dividing the party along MAGA lines. “The Never-Trumper movement is still alive in Ohio. It’s the last gasp of breath,” he declared. “And on Tuesday, we’re going to kill that last gasp of breath.” Mr. Moreno will now roll on toward November and try to win with the Forever-Trump base. But Ohio is in some ways the exception that proves the rule: In other states, things look less turbulent for the red team than they have in years.

Among the Republican strategists and staff members I’ve talked to, the bulk of the credit for this year’s upgraded roster is being showered on Senator Steve Daines of Montana, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate G.O.P. campaign arm. Early in his tenure there, he announced that unlike the previous chairman, he would be playing favorites in the party’s 2024 primaries, aggressively recruiting and boosting candidates who he felt had what it took to win general elections, which, in many places, meant appealing to independent and moderate voters.

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