WASHINGTON DC – The US midterm elections are usually an uphill battle for the political party that holds the White House. The opposition party – in this case, the Republicans – is expected to take the House of Representatives, the Senate, or both. This year, though, things are looking rockier than many expected for Republican Senate candidates.
In Arizona, Blake Masters, who worked for and is backed by the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and whose youthful writings included approvingly quoting Hermann Göring, is down in the polls to the Democratic senator Mark Kelly. JD Vance, who, like Masters, is backed by Thiel, is struggling against the Democratic congressman in Ohio, Tim Ryan – despite a Republican candidate being heavily favoured to win in that state. In Georgia, the Democratic senator Raphael Warnock has a lead over Herschel Walker, a former football player who has tumbled in the polls following an abortion scandal. In Pennsylvania, the campaign of doctor and former TV star Mehmet Oz has, thus far, been characterised by getting destroyed by his Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, on social media.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” said the Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell last week. “Senate races are just different – they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
While it’s possible McConnell’s comment had as much to do with motivating Republican donors as it did with needling the party’s current crop of candidates, there was a certain truth to what he said. In some states, where Republicans should be poised to do quite well, the party is instead running people who have not held elected office before and appear to be struggling with the concept of a competitive political race. Why?
The story starts not in their campaigns, but with candidate recruitment, said David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College. “We just didn’t see the sort of blue riband-calibre candidates jumping into the races,” Hopkins said. And while it’s hard to pinpoint one reason for that, “I do wonder how much of it is that the Republican national party operation – the McConnell operation – has a hard time guaranteeing that it will be able to protect those kinds of candidates during the primary.”
“You’re going to get attacked from the right, and… Trump as this wildcard could come in and endorse your opponent,” said Hopkins.
That means the candidates who did run were, in many cases, Trump-friendly, comfortable with the kind of rhetoric that would motivate his base during a primary – but which might not work in a general election.
People mostly vote for their party’s candidate, said Hopkins. But “when you have a very close election, the candidate can make a difference, even if it’s just a few percent – that could be the difference between winning and losing”.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll lose. “Candidate quality matters, but to a point,” said Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University. If more Republicans are motivated to head to the polls in November, Oz will, in all likelihood, win the election in Pennsylvania. “It’s a mistake to think that because it’s a bad candidate, the people who choose to get out the door to vote will not select the bad candidate.” Republicans have a natural motivating factor for their voters: they’re out of power. It’s Democrats who “have to really figure out what will get their base and independent voters out the door”, said Schiller, though she noted that the abortion issue showed the capacity to energise voters in both a referendum on the matter in Kansas and a special election in New York where the Democratic candidate, Pat Ryan, stressed the subject.
And even if they do lose, that the Republican Party is putting up far-right candidates doesn’t necessarily help Democrats in the long term.
“Ultimately, the Republican Party moving backwards and becoming a more radical right party is not good for the country,” said Luis Ávila, an Arizona-based activist for Iconico, a consultancy that works with organisations to develop public engagement campaigns. It was good that Mark Kelly – whom Ávila described as responsive to and communicative with his constituents – was polling ahead in Arizona, he said. But because Masters doesn’t seem remotely interested in engaging with issues related to racial justice, Democrats risk becoming complacent, “thinking they can do whatever they want” and be rewarded with votes.
And as for the Republicans? “What I’m worried about is that the Republican Party is lacking a vision of what the future will be,” Ávila said. “I’m appalled by the Republicans choosing their candidate to be Masters for the [Arizona] Senate race. I’m really saddened by what that represents for all of us.”
This article was originally published on 26 August and has been updated with the latest information.