Just a few hours after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) met with former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels at the Capitol, the affable new chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), was chatting nearby with his hunting buddy Donald Trump Jr. about a very different candidate for the Indiana Senate seat.
In a meeting at the Capitol Hill Club, Trump Jr. advocated for Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a staunch ally of his father, as the best fit for the state, according to a person familiar with the encounter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal deliberations.
Less than a week later, the NRSC officially threw its support behind the congressman, after establishment favorite Daniels declined to run — effectively avoiding a messy and expensive primary fight between two politicians representing opposing wings of the party. Trump Jr., who calls Daines a close personal friend, served as a bridge between the two men, Banks said in an interview.
As he takes the helm of the party’s Senate political apparatus, Daines’s personal connection to MAGA figures like Trump Jr. has lent him credibility with the base. Meanwhile, more establishment Republicans — still upset over a crop of inexperienced and deeply flawed Trump-backed candidates losing swing-state races in 2022 — are relieved to see him taking an active approach in recruiting and supporting candidates they believe can win a general election.
In the 2022 midterms, the NRSC chaired by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) remained neutral in primaries, and his approach frequently clashed with that of McConnell and his outside political advisers. Daines pledges to take a more active role to ensure the best candidates emerge from Republican primaries, saying in a statement that Republicans have told them they are “sick and tired of losing” and he plans to change that with strong recruiting.
“He has this rare ability to navigate all the different nooks and crannies of the Republican party from Trumpworld to Club for Growth to Leader McConnell and others,” said Steven Law, head of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund PAC, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2022 primary season. “He’s able to establish trust in all these different directions that helps him when he’s recruiting to assess what kinds of candidates he can effectively promote to all those different aspects of the party.”
But Daines — who joined the Senate in 2015 after a brief stint in the House and a long and lucrative corporate career that included working alongside Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte — will face far greater challenges than avoiding an establishment vs. MAGA showdown in a deep-red state like Indiana, where any Republican nominee stands a good shot of winning.
Democratic senators who have shown surprising staying power in the red states of West Virginia, Ohio and Daines’s home state of Montana are up for reelection in 2024, representing prime pickup opportunities for Republicans. And five more senators in states that President Biden won by less than three percentage points in 2020 – ??Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan – also are facing reelection.
It’s a map that should make for an easy walk to the majority in two years. But 2022 showed the potential for untested and often scandal-ridden candidates, like Trump-backed football legend Herschel Walker in Georgia, losing even in a favorable political environment for Republicans. Already, in Arizona, two GOP candidates who lost statewide in 2022 – Blake Masters and Trump surrogate Kari Lake – are weighing runs for the Senate.
“How do you avoid having Trump and Trumpism get in the way of good candidates who can win races?” asked Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee, who endured his own “candidate quality” issues, with Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell famously denying she was a witch in 2010. “It’s going to be quite a challenge for Senator Daines.”
It’s a challenge Daines appears to be tackling with honey, not vinegar, as he works to keep both wings of the party happy.
Daines, who hasn’t endorsed Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential run, said in a statement he welcomes the ex-president’s “input” on Senate races and stays in touch with him. Yet Banks also described Daines as in “lockstep” with McConnell, who has not spoken to Trump in years and has openly blamed him for scaring off independent voters.
Daines with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the Capitol in January. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Some Republican operatives say Trump will be too busy with his own ambitions in 2024 to play such a heavy hand in picking candidates in congressional races, freeing up national Republicans like Daines to boost candidates with more general election appeal.
The new NRSC chair has already shown a willingness to take a stand early in favor of his preferred candidate.
At the NRSC’s winter meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., last month, Daines strongly encouraged former hedge fund CEO David McCormick to run again for Pennsylvania Senate against Sen. Bob Casey during a presentation about 2024, according to three people familiar with the remarks. (McCormick, who was also given a prime speaking slot at the event, was many establishment Republicans’ preferred Senate candidate in 2022 but lost to celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in the primary following Trump’s endorsement of the TV personality.) Daines made the encouraging comments despite the fact that at least one potential challenger for the seat, the former Trump-appointed ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands, was attending the retreat.
“My sense is, he’s willing to make tough choices and take on the risk and conflict if necessary,” Law said of Daines’s approach.
Banks said Daines encouraged him to jump into the Indiana Senate race as he was weighing the decision and introduced him to GOP senators and donors after doing so. “He is the kind of guy who can go out and recruit candidates who can win in the tougher states,” he said.
Scott, the previous NRSC chair, said he believed Daines would do a good job in the role but cautioned against an interventionist approach.
“I believe that people in those states ought to pick who their senators are,” he said. “I don’t believe Washington ought to be picking them.”
Daines said he would “try to be direct about where I stand on issues and potential candidates” to avoid conflict as he takes a more active stance in primaries. “Folks tend to appreciate that honesty even if there are disagreements,” he wrote.
He’s under particular pressure to find a strong candidate in Montana, where Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has been improbably hard to beat in a state that voted for Trump over Biden by more than 15 points in 2020. Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), whom Tester defeated in 2018 after branding him “Maryland Matt,” is thought to be interested in the seat. But Daines has declined to express enthusiasm for a potential Rosendale run when asked and is actively looking for other candidates, according to people familiar with his recruiting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The primary has the potential to stoke divisions within the party if Rosendale, who alienated some donors with his lengthy stand against Kevin McCarthy’s House speakership, runs without the NRSC’s backing and rallies MAGA voters.
While Daines once told a local newspaper that Trump had not been his first or even second choice to become president in 2016, he has since forged deep bonds with Trump’s circle and MAGA conservatives, giving the grass roots some confidence he won’t reflexively side with candidates they see as “RINOs” — Republicans in name only. He’s won their trust without mimicking their combative style.
“I think stylistically he’s closer to what people view as the moderate wing of the party, but in his views, he’s closer to where MAGA world is,” said former Trump administration official Katie Miller, who worked for Daines for several years in the Senate and is the wife of Trump White House aide Stephen Miller, who still advises the former president.
Law recalls Daines telling him during his 2014 Senate race that he was “a dolphin, not a shark” — before he quickly reminded Law that dolphins can kill sharks.
Underneath what seems like a happy-go-lucky personality, “he’s extremely determined and dogged in what he pursues,” Law said.
Daines has also cultivated a wide range of relationships in the Senate that helped get him elected to the role last year, drawing praise from Trump critics like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who called him a “high-energy, articulate, passionate senator,” and occasional McConnell critics like Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, who praised his intelligence.
He has a conservative voting record and rarely joined in on the bipartisan deals that made their way through the chamber over the past two years, voting against the infrastructure bill and gun control measures that some of his Republican colleagues supported. On the issue of abortion, he’s been especially vocal, founding the Pro-Life Caucus in the Senate and memorably tweeting an image last year contrasting turtles’ eggs with human babies and claiming that Democrats wanted to protect sea turtle eggs more than fetuses. After the 2020 election, Daines said he planned to object to the certification of votes on Jan 6, 2021. But following the deadly attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, he voted to certify Biden’s win. In a statement, Trump Jr. called him an “ally to the America First movement.”
“When Steve was elected in 2014 his personal views were probably some of the furthest right in the Senate,” Miller said. “I think he will succeed and do well in this role because of the fact that he has those views inherently.”