Comment: Blame weak recruitment if GOP doesn’t win back Senate

Stronger Republican candidates are staying on the sidelines and voters are choosing the inexperienced.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

Today, Wisconsin Republicans will select their nominee to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Evers should be vulnerable; Wisconsin is about as much of a toss-up state as there is, and with a Democratic incumbent president whose approval rating is below 40 percent, 2022 should be an excellent year for Republicans.

They have even recruited a seemingly solid candidate, former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch. Yet polls suggest that Kleefisch will lose the primary to a first-time candidate who is running ads attacking her for failing to support former president Donald Trump early enough in 2016. Businessman Tim Michels has Trump’s backing, while Kleefisch has endorsements from an array of Republican politicians, including former vice president Mike Pence.

If Michels does win, it will be yet another high-profile election this year where Republicans are nominating an iffy-at-best candidate who might cost them a very winnable seat in the general election.

It has been clear for some time that Republicans might ruin their own chances by picking terrible candidates. But recent primaries in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio and other states show how willing GOP voters are to select extremely risky candidates.

Candidates with electoral experience tend to perform better than those without it. (Nate Silver examines just how inexperienced the candidates Republicans have chosen recently are.)

But political inexperience isn’t the Republican candidates’ only problem. Two of Trump’s big primary success stories, former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia and TV doctor Memhet Oz in Pennsylvania, are celebrities. That can be useful! But both have been duds, or worse, on the campaign trail. Walker has furnished plenty of ammunition for opposition researchers while proving to be incapable of delivering coherent campaign messages. Oz has also been an opposition research gold mine and is getting hammered for not actually living in the state he is seeking to represent. Right now, both Walker and Oz are trailing their Democratic opponents in the polls.

In other states, it’s less about candidates’ competence and more about extreme policy positions. Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio are Senate nominees backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, who presumably supported them because of libertarian positions that translate poorly to the campaign trail. As soon as Masters was nominated last week, he was attacked for having supported privatizing Social Security and Medicaid; unpopular positions everywhere, but particular dangerous in Arizona, a magnet for retirees.

Some of these candidates could win. The national picture still looks better for Republicans than Democrats, and that can be more important than candidate quality. We only have to look back at Wisconsin, where two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson started out as a terrible first-time candidate in 2010. He managed to win a close contest that year, a time when trends sharply favored his party.

But while Johnson in Wisconsin and Mike Lee in solidly Republican Utah won that year, other weak Republican Senate candidates, including Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada, and several more in subsequent elections including Roy Moore in Alabama, have lost elections that most political observers thought a better GOP candidate could have won.

Some of what’s happening in these races is about voter choice: A lot of Republican voters simply prefer inexperienced extremists to experienced mainstream politicians.

But it’s also a problem of recruitment. Potentially strong candidates are choosing not to run in part because of what they would need to do to win and because of what they would have to do once elected. Some promising candidates might enter politics to support the kinds of conservative policies that Republicans once espoused. Yet not many of those people are willing to instead devote their time to pretending that massive fraud cost Republicans the 2020 presidential election.

It isn’t just policy. There are plenty of politicians who run for office because they crave power. That’s actually healthy for the system; many politicians who achieved important things for the nation had that as their core motivation. But for them a fundamental problem with Donald Trump’s influence in the GOP is the prospect of having to toady to the former president’s whims just to be able to remain in good standing with the party faithful.

And if one’s motivations are bargaining and legislating, a goal that some Republican and Democratic leaders once shared? Despite some surprising bipartisanship in the current Congress, recent Republican-majority Congresses just haven’t done much legislating. The bulk of the current Republican Party isn’t focused on cutting deals.

Put it all together, and the current Republican Party has no use for a lot of the traditional reasons people enter politics, so a lot of potentially strong candidates have no use for the party. Republicans have delivered a structural advantage to Democrats. That advantage appears to be getting larger. In 2022, there is a very solid chance that it is going to cost Republicans a Senate majority.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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