Zoom out on the Senate map, and you’ll find no more enticing targets for Democrats than Ted Cruz, Rick Scott and Josh Hawley — three of the highest-profile GOP rabble-rousers, all facing reelection next fall.
“If you’re a Democrat, after Donald Trump, there’s no Republican in the country you want to beat more than me,” Cruz said of his 2024 race.
The Texas Republican is on to something: He’s almost certain to face the toughest road back to office for a GOP incumbent this cycle. His pursuit of a third term is tantalizing chum for Democrats, who see rising-star Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) raking in more campaign cash than Cruz during his first quarter as a Senate candidate.
But Democrats, even as they publicly blast Cruz, Scott and Hawley, aren’t plotting a path to holding their majority that’s too reliant on beating the trio of party villains. That’s because it might be easier to keep control of the Senate by reelecting Democratic incumbents than charging into red states that have proven unwinnable in the past.
So while Cruz, Scott and Hawley are going to draw tens of millions of dollars in opposition cash and, potentially, serious campaigns by their challengers, Senate Democrats’ own campaign chief said he’s not primarily focused on toppling them. As appealing as it might seem to try to defeat their arch-nemeses, flip one or more red states blue and expand their majority in the process, he’s prioritizing a different electoral strategy.
“Hold the incumbents, that’s my main focus,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We obviously want to pick up as many seats as we possibly can … if there’s an opportunity to win, we’re going to take it.”
Peters took the most direct path to preserving his majority just last year, successfully reelecting every one of his endangered incumbents. He also managed to pick up an open seat in Pennsylvania, surprising prognosticators across the country.
Texas, Florida and Missouri are a far cry from Pennsylvania, though. Democrats last won Senate races in Florida and Missouri in 2012; their last win in Texas was 1988. But by virtue of their sheer notoriety in Democratic circles, Cruz, Scott and Hawley are going to draw a lot of attention during the 2024 campaign.
Sarah Guggenheimer, spokesperson for the Democratic-controlled Senate Majority PAC, said the trio “have spent six years prioritizing their own ambitions and protecting their status as cartoon villains instead of doing their jobs.” All three objected to President Joe Biden’s 2020 win, and all are pugnacious culture warriors who can inflate fundraising numbers on both sides of the aisle.
“They will spend $100 million on this race. It will be a massive influx of out-of-state money. Every corporate interest that I have offended, all of the lefty groups who detest my positions, will absolutely spend big in this race. And we think it will be very competitive,” said Hawley, who defeated former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in 2018.
Meanwhile, Texas is Ground Zero for Democrats’ offensive push after Cruz narrowly won reelection in 2018. The party is coalescing around Allred, hoping the battle-tested House Democrat can succeed where Beto O’Rourke failed five years ago.
“If Beto had run a more disciplined race, he could have won,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “I’m sure Allred believes ‘I’m the underdog in this.’ But he doesn’t need to go into it thinking, ‘I’m just the mission of mercy candidate.’”
Allred has a primary challenger, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, and Republicans are hoping that contest pulls Allred to the left. Even so, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he’s warned Cruz that next year’s Lone Star State campaign “may be the most expensive race in 2024.” Cornyn himself won by almost 10 points in 2020 in a race that saw more than $100 million in total spending.
Cruz knows he could face a Democratic deluge similar to O’Rourke’s nearly $80 million in fundraising in 2018.
“We are taking the race intensely seriously,” Cruz said, adding that Senate Majority Leader Chuck “Schumer has been explicit that my race is his No. 1 Republican target this next cycle.”
Still, Cruz has reason for optimism. Cornyn’s reelection was one of several red-state mirages for Democrats that soaked up hundreds of millions of dollars in resources during the 2020 cycle. In each one, Democrats landed candidates who blew the doors off of fundraising but never got a whiff of a victory over GOP incumbents.
Instead Democrats won the majority that cycle on the more fertile, purple-state territory of Georgia, Arizona and Colorado.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is betting Missouri, Florida and Texas will play out the same way this time around. NRSC spokesperson Philip Letsou said that “Hawley, Cruz, and Scott are taking their races seriously and have built extremely strong campaign operations to beat back the millions in attacks they will face from left-wing donors in New York and California.”
Still, if Democrats can get the GOP to expend resources and energy in those red states, they might relieve pressure on their vulnerable incumbents while also giving the party a shot at picking up seats. Hence the urgent mission to recruit former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) to take on Scott, who has bedeviled Democrats in three straight elections: Two as the Sunshine State’s governor and again in 2018, when he narrowly unseated then-Sen. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.).
During his first term, Scott has battled with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, released an agenda that both parties condemned for raising taxes and sunsetting entitlement programs (which he later revised). He also served as NRSC chair, facing off against Peters.
Overall, Democrats see “a sitting senator who’s by all accounts unpopular in their own state … I think there’s opportunities” in Florida, said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a DSCC vice chair.
While Florida went deep red last fall — with both Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Gov. Ron DeSantis winning by wide margins — Trump took the state more narrowly in 2016 and 2020. Scott himself is bracing for that closer dynamic in his state next year.
“It’s the biggest swing state in the country,” Scott said in an interview. “This is the first election where I’ve been on the ticket with a president. It’ll be a different experience.”
Mucarsel-Powell, should she jump in, will also have some primary opponents. Former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Navy veteran Phil Ehr are in the race already, and others are considering it. Whoever prevails will be taking on a crafty campaign veteran with lots of personal wealth.
Similarly, Hawley already has Democrats lining up to face him in Missouri: Declared candidates include St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Wesley Bell, state Sen. Karla May and Marine Corps veteran Lucas Kunce, who lost the Missouri primary in 2022.
For Democrats, however, Missouri is not as enticing as Texas and Florida, no matter how much the party base despises Hawley. Trump won the state — once a national bellwether — by more than 15 points in both 2016 and 2020 as the skilled campaigner McCaskill lost to Hawley by more than 5 points. Jason Kander’s upstart 2016 campaign nearly toppled then-Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who retired last year. The 2022 race to succeed the retiring Blunt wasn’t that close.
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