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The GOP’s 2022 candidate problem — and how much it might matter

Dozens of people calling for stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania because of baseless allegations of electoral fraud made by President Donald Trump gather on the steps of the state capitol in November 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

We can say two things in the aftermath of the 2021 elections as the battle for 2022 takes off:

  1. The political environment is shaping up to be very favorable for the GOP in its effort to win back Congress.
  2. Republicans appear to be preparing to test the limits of that advantage by putting forward some rather extreme and baggage-laden candidates.

If recent history is any indication, though, the latter probably won’t matter as much as it once might have. And the biggest practical implication could be a Congress that, as Politico’s Sam Stein notes, might make the GOP’s congressional contingent after the 2010 tea party wave look rather moderate by comparison.

The Fix has written a lot about the state of the GOP’s 2022 field. It includes multiple leading Senate candidates who have been accused of domestic violence. The Ohio Senate primary, in particular, seems to be a race over who can troll the left hardest and push the Trump-iest policies. Almost all of the non-incumbents Trump has endorsed have promoted his false stolen-election claims — often harder than just about all congressional Republicans. And Trump’s most recent endorsements include backing a candidate who has allied with a far-right militia leader and a congressional candidate in Michigan who echoed fringe claims, including that a Hillary Clinton adviser engaged in a satanic ritual involving drinking bodily fluids.

GOP leaders who would once intervene in such races to ensure the party didn’t nominate bad candidates are largely powerless to do much about it. It’s in many ways a replay of the tea party-era GOP, in which party support in the primaries often ended up hurting the establishment’s chosen candidates, so the party backed off.

The result was that the GOP nominated a string of electoral duds who might well have cost the party the Senate. That number included Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in 2010, and Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock in 2012.

It is logical to consider that something similar could happen in 2022 if Republicans nominate candidates such as Josh Mandel in Ohio, Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania, Eric Greitens in Missouri and Herschel Walker in Georgia. The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer and Mike DeBonis had a good rundown of the GOP field at the weekend, and it’s not exactly composed of a bunch of Glenn Youngkins.

But we’re also in a pretty different era even from a decade ago. At both the Senate and the House level, the prevailing environment drives the day more than it did even that short time ago. We’ve become a more parliamentary system, in which people increasingly vote for the party rather than the individual.

In the Senate, for instance, only one 2020 Senate race featured a Senate winner and a presidential winner from opposite parties: Maine. The 2016 election featured zero.

Things open up a bit more in midterms, but only so much. Democrats in 2018 won seven races in states Donald Trump had carried two years earlier. But all except one of them were won by incumbents, and mostly in closely decided 2016 states.

Here’s how that looks. And note in particular the continued trend after 2010.

While it’s a little more difficult to tell the tale in the House, the trend is very similar.

The big story line after the 2020 election was that Democrats underperformed down-ballot in the House — losing seats while winning the presidency — but a closer look reveals that the races mostly just reflected the top of the ticket.

The Post’s Philip Bump illustrated how that’s increasingly the case in the House. In fact, the 16 races to split between the presidential race and the House race — fewer than 4 percent of all 435 races — were 10 fewer than any election since 1992.

The next lowest year for split-ticket House races was our reference point of 2012.

Again, with a nod to Bump’s great charts, here’s how House results reflected the presidential race in 2012:

And here’s how they reflected it in 2020:

Even in that latter chart, of course, there are variations from the presidential vote. We also needn’t look back too far to see how bad candidates can severely cost Republicans; Roy Moore somehow lost Alabama in 2017, for instance.

That was a special election, though, in which the results are often, well, special. Those races often vary much more widely than even in a midterm election. Moore’s loss also came during a Republican administration, and the opposing party usually has the wind at its back — a situation that’s currently reversed with President Biden in office.

The lesson seems to be that candidates do matter and always will to some extent — just not as much as they once did. The prevailing national environment can paper over more race-specific controversies.

At the same time, beyond Moore, we haven’t necessarily seen this tested in a huge way in recent years. The congressional GOP has certainly ventured toward the extreme in the Trump era, with large swaths of the party now excusing a literal attack on the U.S. Capitol and baselessly believing the 2020 presidential election was stolen. But we haven’t seen candidates akin to Angle, O’Donnell, Akin, Mourdock and Moore emerging in high-profile races.

Until, it could well be, now. And it’s one of the biggest subplots of the 2022 races. It’s just not one that we should necessarily expect to play out as it did even just a decade ago. But, either way, it has large implications for the future of Congress.