The choice in North Dakota’s U.S. Senate race, according to one candidate, is a simple binary: a bowl of oatmeal or an egg-avocado breakfast platter.
This metaphor was recently posted on Facebook, in meme form, by Rick Becker, a Republican state legislator who has just launched a primary campaign to oust Republican incumbent Senator John Hoeven.
None of their names are referenced. But the suggestion is clear: Becker — a fire-breathing MAGA conservative popular with the state’s far-right — is meant to be the exciting and appetizing choice.
And Hoeven — a two-term booked senator who is as likely to appear on a farm policy newscast as he is on Fox News — is meant to be bland oats.
That the essence of Becker’s speech to GOP primary voters compares the excitement inspired by breakfast foods is perhaps the most telling window into what this race is really about.
In the era of Donald Trump, many Republican incumbents have found themselves on the wrong side of the ex-president — and the party base he commands — for defying him, disagreeing with him or even simply not doing enough to sustain it.
It is almost impossible to claim that Hoeven is guilty of all this. Only four current GOP senators have voted with Trump more often than Hoeven, according to FiveThirtyEight.
At each of Trump’s impeachment trials, Hoeven voted to acquit the president, and he later voted to obstruct the creation of an independent commission investigating Jan. 6. demonstration.”
In today’s GOP, however, it may not be enough for a politician to simply have do not offended Trump or his supporters to be safe. Republicans may have to recast themselves in Trump’s belligerent and often intentionally offensive image.
Hoeven isn’t the only GOP senator under threat this election year, as party voters step up their desire for MAGA warriors.
Of the 14 re-election candidates, a total of five face potentially competitive primaries from challengers taking over America First. They range from Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), a bonafide critic of Trump, to the Senses. Hoeven, John Boozman (R-AR), James Lankford (R-OK) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), each who did or said little to go against the party base.
None of the 12 Democratic senators up for re-election, meanwhile, need worry about sweating out a real primary.
Some Republicans point to the primary fever as a sign of broader GOP enthusiasm this election year, in which they are favored to regain control of Congress. In 2018, a banner year for Democrats, three of their incumbents faced serious primary challenges.
But more than Democrats, Republican primary voters across the country are increasingly looking for — and ready to elect — combative figures who prioritize fighting domestic culture wars and defending Trump in television and on right-wing social media.
That sentiment has already been reflected this year in the number of House Republicans facing MAGA-fueled primaries, as well as the unusually high number of GOP governors facing their own similar primaries. Some open-seat Senate primaries have also become contests over which candidate makes the better impression on Trump — or Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The US Senate, with its six-year terms, is usually a place where members have the space to accumulate power and carefully build political operations in DC and at home. A sitting senator hasn’t passed his primary in 10 years.
But at this volatile time for the party, some Republicans warn that no one, even staunchly conservative senators, can consider themselves safe.
“Given the environment, there’s bound to be a surprise in one of these primaries,” said Ken Spain, a longtime Republican strategist.
“People who only run for office every six years are often not in good shape to fight when it comes to running competitive races,” Spain continued. “It’s easy to get caught off guard if you don’t run aggressively.”
This is especially the case in the specific states where these primaries are taking place, which are among the most solidly Republican states in the country. Some of the incumbents up for re-election this year, an agent said, simply don’t work in their own states as if they were at real risk of losing.
In those more rural states — where TV airtime is cheap and the electorate is smaller — a challenger may get away with raising less money than an incumbent. America First’s self-scoring challengers were all heavily outspent by the incumbents, but still brought in six-figure sums heading into the election year.
Because of the deep red hue of these states, potential primary contests are unlikely to shift the partisan balance of power in an evenly divided Senate. But the contests could shift the balance of power within the Republican Party.
There is, as Republican strategists like Spain note, the distinct possibility that an incumbent could lose. Other than that, in an effort to deny a challenger to run against them, GOP senators could assume more Trumpian positions.
If the main competitions are all about MAGA style rather than conservative substance, some incumbents have stuck to the latter, for now.
Lankford, for example, faces a challenge from far-right Tulsa pastor Jackson Lahmeyer that has been endorsed by Oklahoma’s GOP chairman. In an interview on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Lankford said the challengers are based “not on policy” but “on volume.”
“It’s a season where some want to see someone stronger and scream more, because they’re angry,” Lankford continued. “I understand their frustration or their anger, quite frankly, I understand. I don’t think yelling at people solves anything.
Pressed on the issues at stake in his race — where a former MAGA-aligned soccer star named Jake Bequette is hosting a primary — Boozman balked, speaking instead about his office’s voter services work.
“I don’t know why he’s showing up,” the low-key Arkansas senator finally said of Bequette.
But most senators take the challenges seriously. And there is evidence for that.
Despite being early in the election cycle, Lankford has previously funded TV ads in Oklahoma. Last week, Boozman also aired TV ads in Arkansas, after a mysterious super PAC lost nearly $1 million on ads supporting Bequette.
Beyond that, Grassley — who may be the only incumbent looking beyond the primary for a competitive remote race against a Democrat — is running Facebook ads and raising money for his campaign. Just like Murkowski. Hoeven appears to be the only candidate who has yet to place any TV or online ads.
Asked about the challenges in place, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), the chairman of the official Senate GOP campaign arm, played down the threats, calling them “part of the process.”
“The starters are all going to win,” Scott said.
According to Spain, some of the challenges are so fragile that they “border on the absurd”.
“A lot of these incumbent senators have done a very good job on their political records,” Spain said, “but the question that seems to be for Republican voters is how committed are you to the war? cultural.”
Indeed, the challengers are, until the end, immersed in the war of cultures. In Oklahoma, for example, Lahmeyer has made the COVID-skeptical rally circuit a staple of his campaign. Bequette’s Twitter feed is also full of right-wing media talking points about masking and vaccines.
In the “issues” section of his website, Becker, the Republican from North Dakota, has “COVID tyranny” and “progressive coercion (CRT, BLM, gender)” as well as “energy and the environment” and “immigration”.
Most important for these challengers is to outdo the incumbents with almost comical levels of loyalty to Donald Trump.
Kelly Tshibaka, who is challenging Murkowski, might be the only challenger with a real case on that front. The Alaskan senator has long stood up to the GOP establishment and Trump, after voting to convict him in his second impeachment trial.
The others, however, cling largely to straw. Lahmeyer launched his campaign against Lankford because the senator originally planned to oppose certification of Joe Biden’s electoral votes on Jan. 6, then voted to do so after the riot, along with nearly every other GOP senator. .
Super PAC ads supporting Bequette in Arkansas claim “too many Republicans are too weak to stop” Democrats, and show an image of Boozman with the phrase “RINO Republican” on it. The ads never explained why, however, Boozman is a “Republican in name only.”
Jim Carlin, the Iowa state senator challenging Grassley, has made the 88-year-old incumbent’s long term part of his case to unseat him. But he also accused Grassley of not doing enough to shed light on 2020’s non-existent voter fraud plot.
“The people we relied on to tell us the truth let us down by not seeking the truth,” Carlin said in a speech in February 2021, after launching his campaign.
Perhaps there is a method to this madness. Any GOP candidate knows that an endorsement from Trump can be a game-changer, whether it’s canceling a primary or making a real challenge possible.
So far, Trump has endorsed Tshibaka in Alaska, setting up a major proxy battle between the MAGA world and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is a strong supporter of Murkowski. The ex-president also endorsed Boozman in March 2021, although that was before Bequette entered the race.
A close Trump ally, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that he recently spoke with the ex-president about the 2022 photo. Cramer expects Trump to support ” most” incumbents. “These are people who worked with him and helped him and his agenda,” he said.
But Cramer added that Trump “likes fighters” and “has a certain admiration for people who poke their heads out of the fox hole.”
“That personality trait,” Cramer said, “is something a lot of people want in the rest of us.”