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Republicans are recruiting a pair of high-profile candidates in an effort to expand a Senate map with limited offensive opportunities.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt are considering challenging Democratic incumbents whom they’ve succeeded in elected office before. They’re viewed as strong contenders by strategists from both parties.
Should they run, it would double the number of Democratic-held seats the GOP is seriously competing for and increase its odds of netting the one seat it needs to take back the majority. The push comes as Republicans see a golden opportunity to win both closely divided chambers of Congress and break up Democrats’ control of Washington two years after Donald Trump was defeated for re-election.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has acknowledged talking to Laxalt about challenging Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and has said he’d welcome Sununu’s candidacy against Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who was governor when she ran for the Senate in 2016. But Scott hasn’t publicly discussed conversations with Sununu, who likely won’t make a decision until much later this year.
Scott “has spoken with a lot of potential candidates who are excited about the possibility of running for Senate and fighting back against the Democrats’ radical agenda,” an NRSC spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said in an email.
The Senate is currently divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the deciding vote. But Republicans’ hopes of picking up a single seat are complicated by the need to defend 20 of the 34 Senate seats up for election and by the fact that the only incumbent retirements this cycle are their own.
That includes races in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which are the only ones currently rated as Toss-ups by the Cook Political Report. Other GOP seats that could see competitive races include those in Ohio, which has an open seat; Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson (R) hasn’t announced whether he’ll seek re-election; and Florida, where Rep. Val Demings (D) launched a challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio (R) last week.
Hassan and Cortez Masto won close races to take their Senate seats in 2016. But until top challengers announce to take them on, the GOP’s more ripe opportunities are the seats recently won in special elections by Democrats Mark Kelly in Arizona and Raphael Warnock in Georgia.
Democrats say Hassan and Cortez Masto are likely to win no matter whom they run against, citing the party’s streak of statewide wins in presidential and Senate contests.
“We’re taking nothing for granted, but if Sununu and Laxalt get into these races they’ll become the latest addition to the long, long list of Republicans who’ve lost Senate campaigns in both New Hampshire and Nevada,” David Bergstein, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a email.
Laxalt Likely to Run
Laxalt, who succeeded Cortez Masto in the attorney general’s office by winning the open-seat race in 2014 and lost a bid for governor four years later, is likely to officially enter the Nevada Senate race sometime this summer or fall.
Republicans hope he can bridge a divide in the party between those loyal to Trump and those who want the party to move on from Trump’s grievances about the 2020 election.
Laxalt supported Trump’s claims of widespread fraud in the Nevada presidential election and feuded with the Republican secretary of state, who said the election was fair and honest. Trump lost the state by a little more than 2 percentage points in 2020 after losing it by the same margin in 2016.
Laxalt’s alliance with Trump is a plus for Scott. The NRSC chairman wants the help of the former president, who remains popular with Republican base voters, to take back the Senate after losing the majority in 2020.
But Laxalt’s continuing arguments about the 2020 election could emphasize GOP divisions and help Cortez Masto in a general election, Democrats and some Republicans said.
Laxalt “would be a formidable candidate” if he runs against Cortez Masto, said Jim Denton, a longtime Nevada consultant who advised scores of candidates, mostly Republicans, over 40 years. He added, however, that Nevada has been trending blue as its population has grown and changed, with Democrats holding nearly all statewide offices.
Asked for comment about the race, Cortez Masto said in a statement to Bloomberg Government that she’s going to continue to work across the aisle to strengthen the tourism and hospitality industries that support many state workers.
“Nevada has been hit especially hard by the pandemic, and my focus is getting people back to work and making sure our economic recovery includes all Nevadans,” Cortez Masto said.
Sununu, who’s sometimes criticized Trump, is uncertain about taking on Hassan, whom he followed in the governor’s mansion, according to an ally, Stephen Duprey, a former chairman of the state Republican Party. Sununu might run for Senate next year or he might seek another two-year term as governor, Duprey said.
In a radio interview last week, Sununu said he wouldn’t make a decision on the Senate race “for a really long time,” adding that he would spend the summer and fall enjoying “just being a governor.”
Hassan said in a statement to Bloomberg Government that she’s focusing on “the priorities that matter to the people of New Hampshire, including supporting small businesses and passing bipartisan legislation to boost American innovation and help us outcompete China” — not on her 2022 race just yet.
“I will keep working across party lines to strengthen our state’s economy and keep our country safe — and that work doesn’t depend on who my opponent is,” Hassan said.
If Sununu does run for the Senate, “I think he would have a very good chance of winning,” Duprey said, noting the governor’s high marks for handling the pandemic and the economy. He predicted Trump, who is wading into several Senate races, ultimately will have little effect on the one in New Hampshire if Sununu gets in. He noted Sununu was re-elected with 65% of the vote in 2020 despite Trump losing.
Still, Duprey said, “the best thing Trump could do would be to stay the heck out of the race.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org