In April, before any U.S. Senate primary was held, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed some concerns about his party’s direction. “From an atmospheric point of view, it’s a perfect storm of problems for the Democrats,” the Kentucky Republican said at the time. “How could [Republicans] screw this up? It’s actually possible. And we’ve had some experience with that in the past.”
The GOP leader added, “In the Senate, if you look at where we have to compete in order to get into a majority, there are places that are competitive in the general election. So you can’t nominate somebody who’s just sort of unacceptable to a broader group of people and win. We had that experience in 2010 and 2012.”
McConnell went on to say that some of his party’s nominees have been “bizarre.”
He had a point. Many in the party still wince when they hear names like Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock — each of whom won Republican Senate primaries a decade ago in competitive races, and each of whom lost when voters were repelled by their radicalism.
Three months later, McConnell offered a follow-up assessment of Senate Republicans’ chances of reclaiming a majority, conceding that “candidate quality” might stand in the GOP’s way.
About a week later, Sen. Rick Scott — at the time, the controversial chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — was apoplectic. In an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, a conservative news site, the Floridian wrote that “many of the very people responsible for losing the Senate last cycle are now trying to stop us from winning the majority this time by trash-talking our Republican candidates.” Scott added:
It’s an amazing act of cowardice, and ultimately, it’s treasonous to the conservative cause. ... If you want to trash-talk our candidates to help the Democrats, pipe down. That’s not what leaders do. ... [W]hen you complain and lament that we have “bad candidates,” what you are really saying is that you have contempt for the voters who chose them. Now we are at the heart of the matter. Much of Washington’s chattering class disrespects and secretly (or not so secretly) loathes Republican voters.
Now that the 2022 midterm elections have run their course, it’s worth revisiting this intraparty dispute, because as the dust settles, the question about “candidate quality” has a pretty obvious answer.
There’s a school of thought that argues such concerns are an antiquated idea. Partisanship rules the day, the argument goes, and a determinative number of voters will back aligned candidates — no matter how weak, unqualified or ridiculous — based on nothing more than whether they have a “D” or an “R” after their name.
But we keep seeing fresh reminders that dismissing “candidate quality” altogether is unwise.
This year, with Donald Trump’s encouragement, GOP primary voters rallied behind Arizona’s Blake Masters, Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz, New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc and Georgia’s Walker. Historian Kevin Kruse derisively labeled candidates like these the “Celebrity Apprentice Republicans.”
Collectively, none of the four Senate candidates had ever won any election for public office at any level. Worse, each of the candidates were, to borrow McConnell’s adjectives, “bizarre” and “unacceptable.”
They also all lost, helping Democrats expand their majority.