New Hampshire

Maybe candidate quality wasn’t McConnell’s only problem

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants to make it very clear that it is not Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fault that Mitch McConnell will not be the Senate Majority Leader in the upcoming 118th Congress.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, McConnell echoed criticism he leveled last summer when a phalanx of Republican Senate candidates trailed their Democratic opponents in polls.

“We ended up with a candidate-quality challenge,” McConnell said, noting that he had warned against it. “Look at Arizona. Also look at New Hampshire and the challenging situation in Georgia.”

He added, “We’ve had the opportunity to relearn, once again, to win competitive Senate races, you have to have quality candidates.” The cause of the inferior candidates? McConnell wasn’t being subtle: “The support of the former president” — that is, Donald Trump — “has proved very crucial in these primaries,” and candidates like those in the states he mentioned were the result.

It’s obviously true that candidates like Herschel Walker – he from the challenging Georgia situation – weren’t particularly strong on the stump. It’s also true that there was a consistent pattern in the 2022 Senate election: incumbents won, and vacant seats in states that strongly favored one candidate or another in 2020 supported that party’s Senate nominee.

In the two non-incumbent swing state contests, Republicans won one and lost one. This pattern is difficult to attribute to candidate quality.

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Let’s look at the three races mentioned by McConnell.

In Arizona, where Blake Masters lost by 5 points, and New Hampshire, where Don Bolduc lost by 9 points, Republican candidates went up against Democratic incumbents in states won by Joe Biden in 2020. Every place this combo was in play, the Republican challengers lost.

However, remember that New Hampshire also voted for Biden by more than 7 points in 2020. So Masters fared much worse on his party’s 2020 presidential record than Bolduc because the shift in his race for the Democrats was 4.6 points more favorable than the 2020 presidential record, while Bolduc’s shift was 1.7 points.

Now compare Bolduc to Joe O’Dea, the Republican candidate who ran against the Democratic candidate in Colorado. Over the summer, just before he complained about the quality of the candidates, McConnell called O’Dea the “perfect candidate” for the state. But O’Dea also lost – his race shifted 1.1 points towards the Democrats compared to 2020.

In other words, O’Dea did about the same as Bolduc in terms of 2020 presidential results. Though he’s “perfect” and Bolduc is a prime example of the opposite.

There have been 10 Senate races in states that backed Biden or Trump by less than 10 points. Four had Democratic incumbents who won and four had Republican incumbents who won. At the other two races in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Senate race results were to the left of the 2020 presidential election results. But because Ohio is redder and the momentum is smaller, JD Vance won his election. Mehmet Oz lost in Pennsylvania.

What happened in Ohio is the opposite of what happened in Nevada. There, Adam Laxalt fared better than Trump in 2020, but Nevada was too blue to catch Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D). He lost a percentage point.

The third candidate mentioned by McConnell was Walker. He even ran with Senator Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) in November, but lost by a large margin in a runoff. The graph above shows the runoff range. Had we used November’s border, its circle would have landed directly to the left of the center divider. The shift to the left compared to 2020 in November was less in Georgia than Ohio, where Vance won, or Colorado, where O’Dea lost.

You probably know a reason for this: Walker was bolstered by sharing the November ticket with Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who easily won re-election. Kemp had coattails. But even without Kemp, Walker was within three points of reigning Warnock. That’s a lot closer than Oz, whom McConnell didn’t want to identify as subpar, to John Fetterman.

Could disparate candidates have led to the defeat of Democratic incumbents in swing states? Maybe. But no incumbent lost anywhere. We’re admittedly raising the issue here, but the midterms of 2022 appear to have been a moment when tenure had specific benefits.

At the end of the day, it’s understandable why McConnell would like to identify the Trump-backed candidates as the party’s weak point. It’s certainly true that candidates like Walker haven’t done much good for the party. But the party has also had wins where it underperforms and losses where it overperforms. They had perfect candidates who underperformed Trump in 2020.

The problem wasn’t just candidate quality.

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