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The Morning Dispatch: Can the GOP Retake the Senate?
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The Morning Dispatch: Can the GOP Retake the Senate?

Plus: Who killed Daria Dugina in Russia?

Happy Tuesday! NASA has released an approximation of what a black hole sounds like, and it’s a perfect way to start your morning—if you’re into Dante’s second circle of Hell, dementors, that sort of stuff.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The New York Times reported Monday that, between the National Archives, the Justice Department, and the FBI, the federal government has recovered “more than 300 documents with classified markings” from former President Donald Trump since he left office—including documents related to national security from the FBI, CIA, and National Security Agency. Trump went through the boxes of materials himself in late 2021 before turning some of them over, according to the Times report, and concerns he and his team were not being fully forthcoming with the relevant agencies contributed to the execution of a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month.

  • Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart—the judge who signed the warrant authorizing a search at Mar-a-Lago earlier this month—issued an order on Monday instructing the Justice Department to propose redactions to the sealed affidavit explaining the rationale for the search, as he is likely to make at least some of it public due to “intense public and historical interest.” He added that it’s possible, however, the government will request such extensive redactions—to protect cooperating witnesses, evidence collection methods, and the investigation’s roadmap—that disclosure of the document is ultimately rendered “meaningless.” 

  • Pfizer and BioNTech announced Monday they have formally requested Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for their COVID-19 booster shot modified to target the original coronavirus strain and the latest iterations of the Omicron variant. The companies have already begun scaling up production of the updated vaccine—which has yet to be tested in a human clinical trial—in anticipation of expected authorization ahead of a fall booster campaign.

  • Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga formally challenged the results of last week’s presidential election on Monday, with his campaign claiming to have evidence proving misconduct by the country’s electoral commission. The commission declared last Monday that Odinga lost to Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto 50.5 percent to 48.9 percent, but four of the electoral commission’s seven members disowned the results due to “the opaque nature” of the general election’s final days. The country’s Supreme Court will deliver a verdict within two weeks.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, 81, announced Monday he will leave his positions as President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in December of this year, bringing an end to his nearly four decades of service in the latter role. “[I am] not retiring in the classic sense,” he told the New York Times, noting he wants to write and inspire young people to enter public service. Congressional GOP leaders vowed to “hold him accountable” if they retake the majority, promising to hold hearings on the origins of COVID-19 and the United States’ response.

  • A spokesman for Ford Motor Co. confirmed to the Wall Street Journal on Monday the auto manufacturer is laying off approximately 3,000 white-collar and contract employees in the coming weeks as part of a broader transition to electric vehicles, batteries, and software. “Building this future requires changing and reshaping virtually all aspects of the way we have operated for more than a century,” an internal memo announcing the move read.

Will Weak Nominees Cost the GOP the Senate Majority?

(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.)

The Beltway press corps let out a collective gasp on Thursday when Mitch McConnell cast doubt on Republicans’ ability to retake the Senate this November, but the minority leader wasn’t voicing any concerns that GOP operatives hadn’t been privately agonizing over for weeks. “I definitely don’t think this red wave is going to end up forming, truthfully,” one strategist told The Dispatch yesterday, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the electoral landscape. “Republicans, we just can’t help ourselves.”

McConnell’s comments were more measured than many of the headlines describing them, but nonetheless refreshingly blunt in an era of political bluster. “I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different—they’re statewide; candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” he said at a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce luncheon when asked about his predictions for November. “Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly.”

As a matter of political analysis, all signs point to McConnell being right. FiveThirtyEight’s election model currently gives Democrats slightly better than a three in five chance of holding onto Congress’ upper chamber, while the GOP is heavily favored to retake the House majority. There are a number of factors contributing to this apparent divergence—a dwindling number of competitive House districts, a particularly unfavorable Senate map for Republicans—but don’t underestimate McConnell’s comments on candidate quality.

“I thought at the outset of this cycle that the environment was just going to be so bad for Democrats that even weaker [Republican] candidates could still win,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate and gubernatorial editor at the non-partisan Cook Political Report. Just a few short months ago, she put the odds of Republicans flipping the Senate above 60 percent. But after an update last week, she now considers it a 50-50 proposition.

What changed? Inflation is beginning to show signs of slowing, and the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade appears to be narrowing the enthusiasm gap in Democrats’ favor. But perhaps most importantly, Republicans are nearly through selecting their nominees for the fall, and—while there’s still time for individual candidates to turn their fortunes around—the slate as a whole is dramatically underperforming.

McConnell didn’t name names in his remarks last week, but it’s pretty clear from context he was referring to Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Blake Masters in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia, and J.D. Vance in Ohio. All four were hand-selected by Donald Trump, and three of the four—excluding Vance—are trailing in polling averages and projected to lose in election models. Turns out organizing primary elections around the whims of an unpopular former president doesn’t set a party up particularly well to win swing states in November. “Donald Trump doesn’t care about whether or not these candidates win the election,” another Republican strategist told The Dispatch. “He only cares if they’re loyal to him.”

Trump, of course, disputes McConnell’s implicit assertion that he backed a bunch of electoral duds. “Why do Republicans Senators allow a broken down hack politician, Mitch McConnell, to openly disparage hard working Republican candidates for the United States Senate,” the former president posted on Truth Social this weekend. “He should spend more time (and money!) helping them get elected.”

The timing was curious, as the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF)—a super PAC closely aligned with McConnell—had announced less than 48 hours earlier that it would drop nearly $30 million on ads supporting Vance in Ohio, despite the Hillbilly Elegy author’s negative comments about McConnell over the past few years. And that haul was actually slightly smaller than the SLF’s previously disclosed $34 million backing Oz in Pennsylvania. Vance—like Masters in Arizona—has demonstrated lackluster fundraising abilities to date, allowing his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, to plaster his ads across local TV and drive his name ID as high as possible.

Some GOP strategists have privately grumbled about Trump not opening up his own massive war chest to support his own hand-picked candidates, while others argued it’s a shame such massive sums of money have to be dropped in these races at all. If Republicans manage to defend all 21 of their Senate seats up for election this year—a big if—they’d only need to pick off one Democratic senator to take control of the chamber. But a significant portion of GOP fundraising—which is, like usual, lackluster this cycle compared to the Democrats’—is being pumped into safeguarding existing seats rather than preparing for potential pick-up opportunities.

“Sure, Vance is going to win this seat,” a GOP strategist said. “But that $28 million that SLF is putting down in Ohio to rescue J.D. Vance that’s not going to Colorado, or New Hampshire, or Arizona, or Pennsylvania, or Georgia.” 

Vance’s team is undoubtedly grateful for the influx of cash, but there are plenty of Republicans who—hearing McConnell’s laments now—wish the minority leader opened up the purse strings earlier in the cycle to boost more “electable” candidates and avoid this predicament. “You knew that Trump was going to play a role in these primaries,” said one Republican operative who has worked on Senate races in the past. “And so you have to intervene in that process. Maybe it wouldn’t have been successful, but the super PAC has a pretty good track record of carrying a lot more electable candidates through primaries. For the life of me, I don’t understand why they just sort of laid down for this.”

McConnell-world would contend that they did not, at least in some races. SLF quietly pumped nearly $7 million into a super PAC earlier this summer with the goal of preventing Eric Greitens—the scandal-plagued former governor of Missouri—from securing the GOP nomination to replace Sen. Roy Blunt in the Senate. In that instance, they were successful

Could that formula have been replicated in other states? “If [McConnell] wanted to have an impact in these primaries, he needed to step up and do something,” the operative said, alluding to his successful push to boost electable Senate candidates in the 2014 midterms after being burned by undisciplined nominees in 2010 and 2012. Former Treasury Department official and hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick was generally considered the safer bet for Republicans in Pennsylvania, and, had Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey been convinced to mount a Senate bid, he would’ve been far likelier to defeat Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly than Masters.

But other strategists argued there was little to be done this time around. Some of the candidates—like Herschel Walker in Georgia—were going to win their primaries no matter how much establishment backing their opponents received, and in other races, support from McConnell might have hurt a candidate more than it helped. “You can say McConnell should have put a thumb on the scale earlier, but if he did that, then the Trump people would be bitching and moaning about how he put his thumb on the scale,” one GOP operative said. “You’re damned if you and damned if you don’t with these guys. And it’s frustrating for those who actually are trying to win when it counts, which is in November.”

If the political climate in November turns out to be as favorable toward Republicans as it appeared to be a few months ago, these shortcomings might not matter. But that bet is looking less safe by the day. “The mistake might be that [the GOP establishment] just thought the red wave would be big enough to carry over really bad candidates,” said David Kochel, a longtime Republican campaign operative. Turns out, it might not be.*

Who Killed Daria Dugina?

Russian political commentator Daria Dugina was driving on a highway several miles outside Moscow Saturday evening when explosives in her car detonated and killed her, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee.

It’s not clear who set the bomb or why. Russian officials attribute the attack to Ukraine, a charge Ukrainian leaders deny.

Dugina heartily supported the war in Ukraine and claimed the mass graves in Bucha were staged by Ukrainians to smear Russian troops. In March, the United States sanctioned Dugina for her work as editor of United World International, which the Treasury described as a disinformation website. The United Kingdom joined in months later, sanctioning her in July for being a “frequent and high-profile” source of disinformation on the war in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin called her death a “vile, cruel crime” in a translated statement and said she “proved by deed what it means to be a patriot of Russia.”

But it’s possible Dugina wasn’t the primary target of the attack. Dugina had attended a cultural festival featuring her father Alexander Dugin as a speaker earlier on Saturday, and Russian news agency Tass quoted Dugina’s friend Andrey Krasnov claiming Dugin planned to ride with his daughter before switching cars at the last minute. 

The elder Dugin is an anti-Western ideologue and philosopher who argues Russia must oppose America and build a Eurasian empire. Although he ardently supports the war in Ukraine and has been labeled “Putin’s brain” in Western media—his arguments for the unification of Russian-speaking countries reflect Putin’s justifications for the conflict—he doesn’t appear to have close ties to the Kremlin or seem to wield much influence over Russian leaders. The U.S. first sanctioned Dugin in 2015.

Purported video of the crash site seems to show Dugin standing by the burning car with his head in his hands, and in a statement posted by an associate, he blamed Ukraine for his daughter’s death. “Our hearts yearn for more than just revenge or retribution,” Dugin wrote, according to a translation. “We only need our Victory [against Ukraine]. … So win, please!”

The FSB, Russia’s security service, accused Ukraine’s intelligence forces of planning the attack, a claim Ukrainian officials deny. “Ukraine has absolutely nothing to do with this, because we are not a criminal state like Russia, or a terrorist one at that,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a television interview.

But an FSB spokesman claimed Monday it had solved the crime, and Russian media published photos and surveillance footage of a Ukrainian woman accused of the attack. Russian media reported the woman entered Russia in July with her pre-teen daughter, rented an apartment in Dugina’s apartment complex, and escaped Russia to Estonia after the attack. 

The FSB didn’t release evidence directly implicating the woman in the bombing, and its version of events—a lethal attack just outside Moscow and a successful getaway—would prove an enormous failure for Russian security forces. Ukraine’s Azov Battalion denied claims that the accused woman is connected to the group, and Estonian officials have declined to confirm whether she entered the country.

Others have suggested alternative sources of the attack. “The origin is obviously internal, not external,” Nicolas Tenzer, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, argued Sunday, pointing to Russian security forces. It’s possible—though at this point we don’t have evidence—that Russian officials arranged the killing to boost support for the war in Ukraine. Assassinations with unclear motives have been a staple of Russian political life, and the FSB has been accused of staging bombing attacks. Ilya Ponomarev—former member of Russia’s Duma who opposed the annexation of Crimea and fled Russia—claimed a previously-unknown Russian underground group called the National Republican Army was behind the attack, publishing what he said was a manifesto by the anti-Putin group.

With likely unreliable reports from Russian investigators and limited independent information, it’s so far impossible to say for sure who killed Dugina and why. On the site today, Andrew Fink offers a word of caution: “It is far too early to draw any conclusions based on public data, and we should be wary of being drawn into stories of plots within plots and loop-de-loops of intrigue.”

Worth Your Time

  • How should the West approach the war in Ukraine in the age of nuclear power? In a column for Bloomberg, Max Hastings argues the Korean war provides an example of restraining the urge to seek total victory. There are of course key differences in the two conflicts—for one thing, Western powers haven’t committed troops to Ukraine as the U.S. did to South Korea—but American leaders during the Korean war faced similar pressures to defend a partner from aggression without escalating to general war with major global powers. “Both sides are constantly exploring how far they can go in pursuing their strategic objectives without precipitating a horrific showdown in arms between Russia and the West,” Hastings writes. “The unfortunate Ukrainians, of course, feel no sense that the savagery to which they are being subjected is constrained by either strategic or humanitarian considerations on Russia’s part. But the rest of the world still prefers regionally limited war to the other kind, which could doom us all.”

  • For National Review, Dan McLaughlin examines the historical roots of American republicanism—opposition to government by or deference to aristocratic hierarchies—and offers two warnings for its modern resurgence. “The first is that attacks on expert and intellectual elites can easily devolve into a populist orgy of anti-intellectual assaults on expertise and knowledge themselves,” McLaughlin writes. “A genuinely republican society is one in which informed, independent citizens have a duty to do their own learning and inform themselves from the best experts and the best minds in society. … The second hazard is the flip side of the first: that populism married to republicanism will lead only to tearing down institutions that have arrogated themselves too much neo-aristocratic privilege, while doing nothing to replace them. Properly understood, republicanism requires what Yuval Levin calls ‘civic republicanism’: the tending of institutions that instill civic virtue and informed citizenship in ordinary people. … If the few are unworthy to rule, their replacement by an equally unworthy many is not an improvement.”

  • Donald Trump has endorsed 222 candidates in House, Senate, or statewide primaries since he left office in 2021, and so far, 94 percent of those candidates have gone on to win their primaries. Does that mean his stranglehold on the GOP is secure? Yes and no, political analyst David Byler argues in the Washington Post. “His endorsement had the highest value in contests with open seats, where two incumbents have been left by redistricting to fight over the same territory, and districts defended by pro-impeachment candidates. Many of these races were close,” he writes. “But in races where voters had already settled on a reliable conservative, Trump often just followed the party rather than led it—and, on a few occasions, voters rejected his choice. … The GOP will look more like him after 2022 than it did before. But Trump’s relationship with the GOP is complicated. Republican hopefuls increasingly copy him, and voters follow his lead in open races. But he also takes direction from the party, which is attracting candidates who are taking Trumpism down new and unpredictable paths.”

Something Wholesome

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah discuss free speech and Florida before turning to a very strange North Carolina case about whether a court can strike down legislation if some of the legislators were elected from gerrymandered districts. Plus: A very special guest with a song to share.

  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live is back! Tune in at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT for a conversation between David, Jonah, Declan, and Audrey about the GOP’s chances of flipping the Senate, the latest Mar-a-Lago developments, and whether anti-Trump Republicans should line up behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

  • We’re trying out a new offering for Dispatch members! Up on the site today, Harvest answered a handful of questions from readers—about her favorite books, covering January 6, her recent trip to the Middle East, the church she was raised in, her obsession with eggs, and more. Stay tuned for an announcement about September’s Monthly Mailbag guest—and get your questions ready!

Let Us Know

Is McConnell right to be sour on Republicans’ chances of retaking the Senate?

Update, August 23, 2022: This newsletter has been updated with additional reporting about Mitch McConnell’s approach to the midterms since publication.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.