GOP looks to Trump to turn up heat on Tester, Brown

Former President Trump is turning up the heat on Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) as Senate Republicans stand on the precipice of winning back the majority.

During Trump’s visit with Senate Republicans last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) urged the former president to do more to “hammer” the two Democratic red-state incumbents. The GOP only needs to defeat one, in addition to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s (R) widely expected Senate win in the fall, to recapture the upper chamber.

Trump appeared ready to oblige.

“I think he was observing how all of a sudden they had become very big Trump fans of late here back in their respective states,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said of the two Democrats who must appeal to Republican voters in their ruby-red states.

GOP members, he said, want Trump to correct the record directly to voters.

But defeating Tester and Brown is no simple feat for the GOP, which is relying on candidates Tim Sheehy and Bernie Moreno, respectively. Both incumbents are considered battle-tested lawmakers who have been through tough reelection fights, including during a presidential year, and have emerged on the other side.

But none of their combined Senate victories have come with Trump at the top of the ticket, which Republicans believe will be a difficult mountain to overcome. Tester won Montana by just 3.5 points, while Trump defeated Biden there in 2020 by 16 points. Likewise in Ohio, Brown won his last reelection by about 7 points, while Trump won by 8 points in 2020.

Graham noted to the former president during Thursday’s meeting at the Senate GOP campaign arm’s headquarters that he is out-running both Sheehy and Moreno, along with the rest of the GOP’s Senate candidate class who are squaring off with a number of well-financed incumbents.

“We realize that his success is our success,” Graham told reporters. “I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re doing better than every Republican Senate candidate in all the states that matter to us in terms of us becoming the majority. We’re in this together.’”

“The road to the Senate majority is also the road to the White House,” he added.

Still, Democrats are quick to note that Trump has plenty on his own plate in presidential battlegrounds, which means Montana and Ohio may not be his highest priority. They also point to his lack of Senate success in recent cycles, with Republicans unable to nab the majority when he was on the ballot in 2020 or in 2022 when many of his personally ordained candidates lost general election fights.

“I don’t see Sen. Herschel Walker [in office],” one Democratic operative with experience in Senate races said. “Moreno and Sheehy have plenty of vulnerabilities.”

While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other top Republicans have repeatedly cautioned that taking down well-funded incumbents is no easy task, the GOP has grown increasingly bullish that the party will be able to nab that one additional seat, with Montana serving as the prime opportunity.

Tester has a distinct brand that has served him well in Big Sky country, but Republicans argue that what aided him in his 2018 win will be working against him this go-around. Mostly Republicans argue Sheehy is a stronger candidate than Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) was six years ago, and the environment this cycle will almost certainly be better for the GOP.

“I think Tester is as dead as you can be at this stage as an incumbent. I just don’t understand the math that gets him back,” one national GOP operative told The Hill, adding that Trump’s increased involvement there “is obviously helpful” and that “there’s no hurt there.”

Tester backers dispute that assertion.

“We do this every six years. Republicans say Jon Tester is weak and they run the same playbook,” one Democratic strategist with Montana ties said. “I know how much they want Jon to be a weak incumbent, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a beltway fantasy. They make it up every six years.”

In Ohio, meanwhile, the national GOP strategist argued Democrats can “run the Romney playbook” on Moreno, making “him out to look like an enemy of the working class.

“There’s going to be a significant amount of Trump/Brown voters. The question is: what can [Moreno] keep that margin at?” the operative said.

“The challenge remains — can Bernie Moreno stand on his own a little bit?” they added

A GOP operative with ties to the Moreno campaign pushed back on that characterization and noted that at this time last cycle, now-Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) was down double digits to former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), and that Moreno is only down by five, adding that Brown has already gone negative with his ads.

“Any smart operative knows that as statewide name-ID equalizes in the fall, Sherrod Brown’s blind loyalty to Biden is exposed and momentum for Trump-aligned candidate Bernie Moreno’s campaign surges,” the operative continued. “It’s going to be difficult for Brown to hold on in November.”

Republicans are also quick to note a number of the ads the Brown campaign has run so far are the types of spots they would consider running for a GOP candidate. Headlining those are recent ads spotlighting hollowed-out automobile plants and affected workers and Brown’s work to mandate that U.S. steel is used for all federally funded infrastructure projects.

An outside group tied to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also has a recent ad out highlighting  the Interdict Act, which Brown worked on with Trump to prevent fentanyl and other drugs from entering the U.S. It’s that type of messaging that are prompting members to push Trump increasingly into those states.

“What our folks obviously were interested in is just making sure that he sets the record straight and that people in those states understand who he’s backing and that there be no confusion,” Thune said. “There are lots of allusions … in those campaigns to places where they now agree with Trump or are very suggestive that they’re friends and work with him, etcetera.”

“The differences will probably become clear over time,” he added.

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