Back in August, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would have a bit of a problem in their effort to retake the Senate: their candidates.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said. “Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.” The comment was widely interpreted as disparaging Trump-endorsed candidates with non-traditional political profiles or extreme views, who had won several GOP Senate primaries.
So, now that Republicans have indeed failed to retake the Senate, was McConnell right? Were they sunk by their poor-quality candidates?
The answer seems to be yes. In a more Republican year than 2020, five of eight GOP Senate candidates in competitive contests did not improve on Donald Trump’s 2020 margins — instead, they did even worse than he did.
Those worse-performing candidates were exactly who you might expect — Peter Thiel employee Blake Masters (AZ), celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz (PA), election denier Don Bolduc (NH), author J.D. Vance (OH), and scandal-plagued football star Herschel Walker.
Their poor performances contrast with the more “ordinary” GOP nominees — former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt, two-term incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (WI), and Rep. Ted Budd (NC), who each outperformed Trump — though in Laxalt’s case, not by enough to win.
Devastatingly for Republicans, if they had run candidates who improved on Trump’s margin as much as Laxalt and Johnson did (1.6 percentage points) in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia, they would have won all three of those contests, averting a Georgia runoff and grabbing the Senate majority.
Senate candidate quality, as compared to Trump’s performance
The intuitive way of assessing who’s a strong or a weak candidate is to just look at who won or lost, and at the size of their win or loss. But every candidate is running in a state or national political context, and a more sophisticated analysis should take into account these contexts.
For instance, a Democrat who comes close to winning in a deep-red state but fall short should probably be thought of as a strong candidate — they did well considering how challenging their state is.
So it’s useful to have a baseline for comparison, and the one I used for the above chart is Trump’s margin of victory or defeat in the same state in 2020. To be more specific:
- Trump lost Arizona by 0.3 percentage points, Masters lost it by about 5.
- Trump lost Pennsylvania by 1.2 percentage points, Oz lost it by 4.4
- Trump lost New Hampshire by 7.4 percentage points, Bolduc lost it by 9.2
- Trump lost Georgia by 0.2 percentage points, Walker trailed Raphael Warnock in the first round by 1 point
- Even Vance, who won Ohio’s Senate race by 6.6 percentage points, underperformed Trump, who won the state by 8.
Then there are the candidates who improved on Trump:
- Trump lost Nevada by 2.4 percentage points, and Laxalt lost it by 0.8 percentage points. So he did better than Trump, but not by enough to flip the seat.
- Trump lost Wisconsin by 0.6 percentage points, and Johnson won it by 1 point.
- Trump won North Carolina by 1.3 percentage points, and Budd won it by 3.5.
So by that baseline, Laxalt, Johnson, and Budd were decent candidates while the others were not. But that’s not the only baseline we could use.
Senate candidate quality, as compared to the national environment
Another context worth keeping in mind is the national one — that all these candidates were running in a year when the national popular vote appears to have shifted from favoring Democrats to favoring Republicans.
In 2020, Democrats won the House of Representatives popular vote by 3 percentage points. This year, Republicans are currently leading it by 4.5 points, though that margin will shrink as California tallies more votes. We don’t know what the final number will be, but let’s be conservative and assume the national environment shifted four points in favor of Republicans, as compared to 2020.
With that baseline, every Republican in a competitive Senate race underperformed because no one managed to improve on Trump’s margin by four points. (Budd in North Carolina, who improved the most, only did so by 2.2 percentage points.)
Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean all the GOP nominees were bad candidates. Perhaps it points to a broader problem with the party’s brand that made voters in all these states hesitant to grant that party control of the Senate. Then, perhaps, some candidates did better than others in dealing with that constraint.
Senate candidate quality, as compared to GOP governor nominees
Still, a national popular vote shift might be a misleading baseline because there were some very different trends in different states. In particular, Republicans sharply improved in New York and Florida, two populous states that affect the nationwide vote count significantly, but the GOP made more limited gains elsewhere.
So another potentially useful comparison is to check how Republican Senate candidates in competitive races did compared to their own party’s governor nominees in 2022.
Here we see that in five of these seven contests with a governor’s race on the ballot (there was none in North Carolina), the GOP’s Senate candidates did worse.
- Bolduc, Vance, and Walker did dramatically worse than Govs. Chris Sununu, Mike DeWine, and Brian Kemp. Those governors were all helped by incumbency, but still, they managed to become broadly popular and win handily, and there were a lot of ticket-splitting voters in these states who backed them and Democratic Senate nominees.
- In Arizona, Masters ran behind GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, and they both lost.
- In Nevada, both Laxalt and GOP governor nominee Joe Lombardo were challenging Democratic incumbents — but Lombardo won and Laxalt lost.
- Only in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania did the GOP Senate candidate do better than their governor candidate, though in Pennsylvania that is likely because Doug Mastriano was a disastrous governor nominee, not because Oz did particularly well.
Again, this could be interpreted as meaning Republican Senate candidates were lower quality than their governor nominees — or that there was a general trend of voters being relatively more reluctant to hand the GOP control in competitive states.
But notably, the best-performing Republican governors on this list — Sununu and DeWine, — have appealed to centrists, at times battling with their party’s right flank. And Kemp is conservative, but he earned Trump’s ire by failing to interfere with Biden’s 2020 election win — which could have helped him appeal to centrists.
Senate nominees in those states, by contrast, did nothing in particular to distance themselves from their party’s right, and merely hoped a Republican wave and disenchantment with Biden over the economy and crime would carry them to victory.
What about the Democrats’ candidate quality?
Finally, this article has mainly discussed how well the Republican candidates did. But of course, those Republican candidates all had different opponents. Any instance of a Republican underperforming could also be read as one of a Democrat overperforming, and vice versa.
By all of the above metrics, Blake Masters performed poorly in Arizona. He had never run for office before being propelled to the GOP nomination with billionaire Peter Thiel’s money and Trump’s endorsement, and there were always questions about his general election appeal. The New York Times’s Shane Goldmacher reported that one Republican operative claimed Masters “had scored the worst focus group results of any candidate he had ever seen.”
Still, his opponent Mark Kelly likely deserves credit too. Kelly was also on the ballot in Arizona in 2020, and he outperformed Biden then too — suggesting some intrinsic strength as a candidate (he’s a former astronaut!).
In Pennsylvania, John Fetterman and Tim Ryan both branded themselves as different types of Democrats with more populist appeal, and they outperformed Biden. However, Maggie Hassan, a pretty traditional Democrat, also outperformed Biden’s margin, as did Raphael Warnock.
Meanwhile, Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin faced attacks for being too far left and underperformed both Biden and his party’s incumbent governor, Tony Evers (who won). Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada ran mainly as a generic Democrat, but she also underperformed Biden — though she won and outperformed her party’s incumbent governor, Steve Sisolak (who lost). Overall it’s a mixed picture, and it’s difficult to draw clear generalizable lessons about which sorts of Democrats did better or worse.
The big picture
Zeroing in on the contests that truly determined Senate control: In 2020, Biden won Georgia by 0.2 percentage points, Arizona by 0.3 percentage points, and Pennsylvania by 1.2 percentage points. These were close states that one would think would be ripe for Republican Senate candidate victories in a more Republican-leaning year, as 2022 was. Yet Walker, Masters, and Oz, Trump’s endorsed candidates, performed notably worse than Trump had two years earlier.
Meanwhile, in Nevada, Adam Laxalt (also Trump-endorsed but a more traditionally qualified Republican) improved on Trump’s margin by 1.6 percentage points. Though he still lost, that might suggest a Laxalt-like nominee could have flipped Georgia (averting a runoff), Arizona, and Pennsylvania. If Republicans had flipped all three, the Senate would be theirs.
Still, we can’t say for sure that a more ordinary Republican would have defeated the actual candidates in these races — Warnock, Kelly, and Fetterman — because those Democrats have their own strengths as candidates too.
And even Laxalt underperformed the national environment, which shifted right by more than his race did. He also underperformed his own party’s governor nominee on the same ballot, and so did several other GOP Senate candidates elsewhere. This could suggest that, for Republicans to win more Senate races in competitive states like this, their candidates should distance themselves more from the party’s right — that, except in a red wave year, being a generic Republican challenger isn’t enough.
Correction, November 16, 2:30 pm: This story and an accompanying chart initially misstated the size of Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s reelection win in Ohio. He won by 26 points, not 16 points.