As we lead up to the primary season, all signs are pointing towards a crushing defeat for the Democrats. COVID is persisting, inflation is lingering, and Biden's foreign policy is flagging. It should be a banner year for Republicans.
FiveThirtyEight, among its other polling averages, tracks polls that show voter partisan preferences for Congress. Currently, the average shows Republicans favored by about two points over the Democrats, and historically, when Republicans are even close to on par with the Democrats in such polling, they do very well in elections.
The potential problem for Republicans is that voters prefer a generic Republican over a generic Democrat, but unfortunately, generic Republicans won’t be on the ballot in November. Given some of the personalities that dominate the GOP these days, I have wondered whether Republicans will do something to muck it up.
Erick Erickson hit on some of those same doubts this week. As most of you probably know, once upon a time, I was a writer for Erick’s Resurgent blog. These days, I disagree with his assessment of the relative dangers of MAGA populism versus liberalism, but even with our disagreements, Erick is still a savvy political observer. In a video clip this week, Erickson cited some of the same concerns about the upcoming election.
The bottom line is that, while voters can prefer one party over the other, sometimes there are other concerns or factors that override those partisan preferences. I can think of a few examples among Republican candidates of the past, but the one that really sticks out in my mind is Christine O’Donnell.
If you think back to 2010, you will remember that it was a Tea Party wave election year. Republicans gained 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate but nevertheless failed to win control of the upper body. Christine O’Donnell was one of the reasons.
Looking back to 2009, Joe Biden had to resign his Delaware Senate seat to become vice president. Delaware’s governor appointed a Democrat as a placeholder to fill the seat until the next election. A popular Republican former governor and congressman named Mike Castle ran for the seat and was the presumed frontrunner.
Enter Christine O’Donnell.
O’Donnell was a Tea Party favorite who said all the right things and hated all the right people. The Tea Party faction labeled Castle a “RINO,” and at one point a website supporting O’Donnell even accused him of having a homosexual affair. On primary Election Day, O’Donnell pulled off an upset to become the Republican nominee.
Then things got interesting. It was only after she won that people started taking a close look at O’Donnell and a number of skeletons soon emerged from her closet. I won’t rehash them all, but the most memorable was the revelation that she had “dabbled into witchcraft” from a 1999 episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher.” That was the most memorable of her problems, but it was far from the only one.
Needless to say, O’Donnell lost the general election to Chris Coons, who is still the junior senator from Delaware to this day. Republicans wouldn’t gain control of the Senate until four years later.
O’Donnell was far from the only Tea Party candidate to fail to close the deal with voters. In fact, the Tea Party was much more successful at getting candidates nominated than in getting them into office. In its best year, 2010, only about a third of Tea Party candidates won their elections despite the popularity of the movement within the GOP. (Full disclosure: I considered myself a Tea Partier in those days and attended several events.) The moral of the story is that primary voters need to consider electability in the general election.
The reason I summon up Christine O’Donnell’s spirit is that quite a few of the candidates that Republicans are considering this year are O’Donnell-esque in their personalities and histories. For example, in his video, Erickson cites:
David Perdue, the failed Georgia senator who is running for governor and polls much worse against Stacey Abrams than Brian Kemp
Herschel Walker, the frontrunner for the Georgia Senate seat, has a history of mental illness and released a weird, rambling campaign video on Twitter earlier this month
Josh Mandel, running for Senate in Ohio, who Erick says has “gone off the rails” and whose “campaign is an embarrassment”
J.D Vance, also running for Senate in Ohio, is a former NeverTrumper who has gone to the opposite extreme and competing with Mandel to see who can be most trumpy to the detriment of both
Dr. Oz, a celebrity and Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, who has so far confirmed that he is a political novice without deep support
On the one hand, Republicans have a number of weak candidates who are unaccustomed to campaigning. On the other hand, Donald Trump has an ax to grind against some Republicans who he deemed insufficiently loyal during his tenure. This includes Brian Kemp, who Trump blames for not intervening to overturn election results in Georgia.
There really are two Republican Parties. There are the vestiges of the party of Reagan and Bush and there is the new Trumpist Republican Party that comprises people like Matt Gaetz, Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene ( who, by the way, endorsed J.D. Vance). The question is which Republican Party will be nominating the preponderance of candidates this spring.
While this sort of candidate can get elected in red states and districts, they have a tougher time in swing districts and purple states. It is these not-so-red areas that Republicans need to win, but that might be turned off by eccentric (to put it nicely) candidates. Herschel Walker strikes me as one of the candidates most likely to pull an O’Donnell and flame out after winning the nomination. Republicans should be praying that he never debates Raphael Warnock.
I’d like to see traditional Republicans come out on top, but I have my doubts. Unlike Erickson, I’m no longer a Republican. I’ve been a swing voter since 2016 and at this point have no qualms about rejecting Republicans who shouldn’t be in office.
A line in the sand for me is voting for anyone who sided with Trump in his coup attempt, especially if they continue to do so. Attempting to overturn elections and the Constitution to put The Former Guy in office for a second term trumps any danger that the left presents. For example, I’m one of the people who plans to vote for Brian Kemp, but if David Perdue is nominated, he will not get my vote for governor, just as he did not get my vote for his reelection to the Senate.
As in 2020, the dynamic between the two parties may put the squeeze on swing voters and moderates. People aren’t happy with the Biden Administration and the Democrats, but they also weren’t happy with the Trump Administration. A politically astute party might offer independent voters what they want in a candidate and a party platform. Unfortunately, in America in 2022, we don’t have one of those. We will likely get to choose between progressivism and Trumpism once again.
If Republicans don’t consider the desires and concerns of the undecided voters in the middle, instead assuming that every voter in the country is a closet MAGA true believer who wants to see Joe Biden impeached and the January 6 committee packed off to jail, they may well end up nominating a bevy of Christine O’Donnells. That might mean that Democrats retain their hold on one or both houses of Congress or, worse, they might get elected and saddle Republicans (and Americans) with another handful of Marjorie Taylor Greens.
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