The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Democrats win, the GOP candidate meltdown will be why

Republican congressional candidate J.R. Majewski takes the stage at a rally held by former U.S. president Donald Trump in Youngstown, Ohio. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

It’s hard to remember a midterm election in which the predicted outcome was as uncertain as it is right now, less than seven weeks before Election Day. If Democrats do somehow manage to hold one or both houses of Congress, they’ll be able to thank their opponents for nominating such an extraordinary number of terrible candidates.

Not one or two, but a whole parade of Republican mediocrities, extremists, nutballs and fools, turning one race after another to Democrats’ favor. Sensible Republicans must be asking themselves: How did we wind up with so many awful nominees?

In every election, candidates blow winnable races by either being generally lackluster, getting caught in a scandal or saying something appalling. The prototypical recent case was Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin, who in 2012 said abortion would be unnecessary in cases of “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” He never recovered from his gynecological musings.

This year, there are Todd Akins everywhere you look. Some recent news:

  • J.R. Majewski, the GOP nominee for a House seat in Ohio, has apparently been claiming to be a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan when, in fact, his overseas deployment consisted of unloading planes in Qatar. Majewski’s chief qualification for office is basically that, in 2020, he painted his lawn into a Trump sign.
  • CNN reports that John Gibbs, the election conspiracist and nominee in a Republican-leaning House district in Michigan, once lamented women’s suffrage, writing that ladies lack “the characteristics necessary to govern,” and that men are smarter because they aren’t so emotional.
  • Other Michigan Republicans are also struggling: GOP nominee Tudor Dixon trails incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by 16 points in a new Detroit Free Press poll, while attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno proposed banning emergency contraception, known as Plan B. “You have to stop it at the border. It would be no different than fentanyl,” he said. “It should be banned.”
  • In New Hampshire, Don Bolduc ran in the Senate GOP primary claiming that Donald Trump won in 2020, then days after securing the nomination, announced that he now believes Joe Biden really won. A novice candidate, Bolduc has not yet learned how to talk about issues without saying things that immediately land in attack ads.
  • Multiple Republican Senate candidates have suggested privatizing Medicare or Social Security, which might be the single most disastrous political position a candidate can take.
  • Alaska now has a Democratic congresswoman, because even Alaskans can’t stand Sarah Palin.

Meanwhile, other Republican Senate candidates — Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, J.D. Vance in Ohio, Blake Masters in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia — have in various ways turned out to be bad at campaigning. All are in vital swing-state races, all are in their first run, all were boosted by Trump, and all have demonstrated that they just don’t really know what they’re doing.

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Again and again, Republican voters have nominated the Trumpiest candidate available — which usually means the one with less political experience and always means the one with less crossover appeal. Republican voters made those choices for a simple reason: It’s what they wanted.

The party dynamic at work here is that all the incentives for Republicans point away from quality candidates: people with skills, experience and the ability to win a majority of votes in any state or district that isn’t overwhelmingly Republican. While it is possible for a masterful politician to also be an election-denying, QAnon-curious extremist who wants to ban all abortions, that kind of person is less likely to have what it takes to win.

On the other side, Democrats tend to be much more cautious about whom they nominate, in part because they are constantly worried that the broader electorate doesn’t really like them. That’s not to say Democratic candidates never implode, but when it happens, it is usually because someone who looked great on paper turned out to be worse than he or she appeared, or did something surprisingly stupid. (We’re looking at you, Cal Cunningham.) Republicans, on the other hand, often nominate candidates who are clearly terrible right from the beginning.

At least one or two of these GOP lemons will probably wind up winning, because it’s still a midterm election (in which the president’s party almost always suffers), and we are a very polarized country, meaning most people will vote for their party’s nominee even if he or she an obvious nincompoop. And other factors — the economy, the sudden urgency of the abortion issue, Trump’s ongoing toxic presence — will have a greater overall impact.

But it is likely to be close in both the House and the Senate, so almost everything matters. And if Democrats do prevail, Republicans might ask themselves whether they should try to get better candidates next time around. The trouble is that most of their voters are perfectly happy with the clown show they’ve assembled this year — and will be ready to do it all over again.

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