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Top Republican convinced Trump can help take back the Senate: 'He wants to win'

Steve Daines, head of the committee in charge of electing Senate Republicans in 2024, has endorsed Donald Trump and believes he could be a huge asset in the elections.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., in 2020.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has endorsed Donald Trump for president for 2024. Caroline Brehman / CQ Roll Call via AP file

WASHINGTON — Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is the man in charge of retaking the Senate for Republicans in 2024. And he thinks he has a secret weapon: former President Donald Trump. 

Many people blame Trump, in part, for endorsing candidates who were popular with the conservative base but turned off general election voters and ultimately lost. But Daines is convinced that a partnership can work its magic this time.

The start of that plan came Monday, when Daines, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, formally backed Trump for president, giving him arguably his most significant endorsement of the cycle. 

“He wants to win. I want to win,” Daines said in a sit-down interview Thursday. “The most important thing we can give our next Republican president is a Republican majority in the Senate.”

Daines explained his decision to back Trump at such an early juncture of the primary by pointing to their collaboration on the 2017 tax cuts and the Great American Outdoors Act, legislation that provided billions in new funding to address maintenance backlogs at national parks. 

But Daines also highlighted his efforts to recruit more mainstream Republican candidates and the boost Trump could give them to make it through contested primaries.

“You look back — his endorsement certainly was a significant factor in primary elections,” Daines said. “And so I’m going to continue to work with the president. I spoke to him [Wednesday] night. And we dialogue a fair amount, just talking about the various states and where his support could help significantly in terms of getting behind candidates who can win primaries and general elections.”

Having Trump on the same page with the NRSC could be critical to the Republican Party’s Senate fortunes next fall. The party is blessed with a map that features Democrats trying to hold on to more than a half-dozen swing or Republican-aligned states with only a few, tough, opportunities for them to pick up seats.

But the GOP is coming off a cycle in which it blew critical races after Trump-backed candidates who embraced his false claims of a stolen election and called for stringent abortion restrictions piled up loss after loss in what should’ve been a strong year for them.

At the top of the agenda for Daines and Senate Republicans is a trio of seats held by Democrats in red states — West Virginia, Ohio and Montana. The NRSC has already started to rally behind West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who announced his candidacy Thursday, in a primary battle against Rep. Alex Mooney. 

Trump has yet to make his support in that race clear; he is close personally with Justice, but he endorsed Mooney in a contested primary last year. In Ohio, Trump has encouraged businessman Bernie Moreno’s Senate run, while the NRSC has so far stayed neutral. In Montana, the NRSC is reported to be encouraging military veteran and businessman Tim Sheehy to jump in, while Trump has kept his powder dry.

Meanwhile, should Trump win the presidential nomination, he will have to carry swing states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin — each of which is gearing up for tough Senate contests. 

While Daines sees Trump as the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP primaries, he said there was still a long way to go for him to secure the nomination. 

“So it is early. I mean, it’s April of the year before the election,” he said. “But this is absolutely a generational-defining election. And we’ve got our heads down here working hard. And we’re going to continue to watch [the] presidential level for sure. But my singular task here is to stay focused on winning the United States Senate for the Republicans.”

Although most polling shows Trump far ahead of his GOP primary rivals, the same surveys tend to show him behind President Joe Biden.

But Daines believes 2024 will be different from 2020, because Biden will be expected to more vigorously campaign and make more public appearances than he did last time, in a period overshadowed by the Covid pandemic. Voters, he said, will also be judging the records of both Biden and Trump rather than offering a referendum purely on Trump’s performance.

“There’s a lot of water to run between now and the election that will go under the bridge,” he said. “But I think it’d be a pretty strong contrast between these two leaders.”

In his short time at the helm of the NRSC, Daines has sought to correct issues that plagued the party at the ballot box last year, whether they be candidate quality or an aversion to early voting. He said his big takeaway from 2022 was the need to get more involved in recruiting candidates who can appeal to independent voters while still being able to make it through GOP primaries.

“Winning a primary is step one, but that’s not sufficient,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to win the general election. I’ve said many times: Winners make policy, and losers go home. We need candidates who can win.

“Where there are candidates that are not able to win general elections, we’re going to be doing all we can to dissuade them,” he added. “And where there are candidates who can win general elections, do all we can to persuade them.”

Daines, like many Republicans, wants to place a greater emphasis on early voting. Trump and his allies denigrated the practice in both 2020 and 2022, and Republicans overwhelmingly eschewed the early vote in those cycles and voted on Election Day. But the strategy put the GOP at a big disadvantage compared to Democrats, who banked votes and more easily avoided Election Day misfortunes. Case in point: a snowstorm Daines cited that hit Republican-leaning northern Nevada on Election Day and may have contributed to GOP Senate nominee Adam Laxalt’s loss.

“We’ve got to become election month voters and not Election Day voters,” Daines said. “Republicans have kind of shifted to being more Election Day voters. And there will still be a lot of Republicans who want to vote on Election Day. But clearly we’ve got to start the aggressive banking of ballots.”

Daines said he believes Trump is shifting his stance on early voting, citing public and private statements. (Trump has maintained that mail-in votes are corrupt but has said the party has no choice but to adapt.)

“He is aligned with that strategy,” Daines said. “And that’s an important shift from where Republicans were in the last election. And I’m grateful that President Trump now will be out there talking about the need for our voters to get out there early and get their votes cast.”

Republicans may soon have to deal with candidates who lost critical races last year — like Kari Lake in Arizona and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania — jumping into Senate races this cycle. Asked about any message he might have for such candidates looking to run, Daines said he wants to have “open and honest” conversations with prospective candidates about their polling and the opposition research they’re likely to face. 

“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s about self-awareness.”