The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Candidate challenges, primary scars have GOP worried about Senate chances

Four months from Election Day, Republicans are struggling in several of the marquee races in the fight for control of the upper chamber

U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks to supporters on May 24 in Atlanta. Walker won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Georgia's primary election. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
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At a recent Republican donor retreat in Chicago, Herschel Walker was asked a question about fiscal discipline and balancing the budget. The GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Georgia replied with a long answer on Black Lives Matter and the police, failing to address the question, according to people with knowledge of the event.

The surprised reaction to Walker’s response was familiar to Republicans who have been tracking his struggling bid in one of the most competitive Senate contests in the nation. Since easily winning his primary, his polling edge against Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) has become a deficit amid erratic campaigning, verbal flubs and disclosures about three children he had not previously spoken about publicly.

Of the many states running primaries or runoffs on May 24, Georgia took center stage. Here’s what you need to know. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The result has been a rescue mission, helmed in part by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has led to several veteran staff hires by Walker’s campaign, including Brett O’Donnell, the party’s most celebrated debate prep strategist. It is just one of the ways GOP leaders have found themselves dealing with cleanup efforts as they round the summer bend on what should be a banner Republican election season.

Herschel Walker says he didn’t try to hide his other three children

Not for decades has the midterm environment appeared as favorable to Republicans, with President Biden’s approval rating at 39 percent, according to a Washington Post polling average in June and the share of voters approving of the country’s direction dropping to 10 percent in a Monmouth poll late last month. But four months from Election Day, Republicans are struggling in several of the marquee Senate races because of candidate challenges and campaigns still recovering from brutal Republican primaries, putting control of the upper chamber of Congress in 2023 up for grabs.

In the battle for control of the House, which tends to hew closely to the national mood, strategists from both parties say they think Republicans are well-positioned to win back the majority. But their success in the fight for the evenly divided Senate and in gubernatorial races, where candidate quality and the unique political contours of each state tend to factor into the outcome, are less of a sure thing in crucial battlegrounds.

“In some of these contests right now, there are some concerns, at least in the Senate map,” said Kevin Madden, a veteran GOP operative. “There are warning signs that some of these candidates are not as strong as they could be given the opportunity at hand.”

Although Republicans are increasingly fretting about their Senate candidates, Democrats remain nervous about the overall political climate. Inflation, rising crime and persistently high gas prices on Democrats’ watch have put their own nominees in serious peril, forcing them on the defensive in many places. Come the fall, operatives in both parties acknowledge, if anger over these issues remains high, even weaker GOP Senate contenders could prevail.

Democrats are defending the narrowest possible Senate majority — the chamber is split 50-50, with Vice President Harris breaking ties — in November, and their vulnerable incumbents in states such as Georgia, Arizona and Nevada are top targets for Republicans charting a path back to power. But none is a sure-bet pickup. The GOP is also defending seats in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where it had hoped to be in a more favorable position.

Nathan Gonzales, a nonpartisan political analyst, said Republicans, even with their candidate struggles, remain in a strong position to take the Senate. “They don’t need to win all of these races; they need a net gain of one seat, and they have at least three, four or five takeover opportunities and two vulnerabilities. Out of that combination, netting one seat looks better,” Gonzales said.

But behind the scenes, Republican operatives are growing increasingly nervous. One GOP strategist watching the Senate race closely, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment more openly about internal deliberations, said that “there are massive problems on the candidate front.” The Republican likened the situation to 2010 and 2012, when the party fell short of winning the Senate majority because of undisciplined and polarizing candidates such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.

It’s not just political novices who are struggling. In Wisconsin, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is roughly even with three of his four potential Democratic rivals in a Marquette University poll last month, taken before new disclosures that his office had attempted to play a role in pushing an alternate slate of electors for the 2020 election. Johnson was viewed favorably by 37 percent of the state’s registered voters in that poll and unfavorably by 46 percent.

Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania, is also polling slightly behind his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, following a brutal Republican primary that flooded the state’s airwaves with attack ads against the retired surgeon and television personality.

Democrats have also been pointing to recent reporting on J.D. Vance, the GOP senate nominee in Ohio, comparing abortion and slavery in an interview last year with a Catholic podcast. In Arizona, where the primary is next month, they have gone after Blake Masters, a candidate backed by former president Donald Trump for the Republican Senate nomination who has promoted the false claim that the former president won the 2020 election and has espoused hard-line immigration views.

For now, there is limited independent polling, but at least for the moment, Democrats in these key statewide contests appear to be outpacing the historical norms. In the 2014 midterms, no Senate candidate performed more than nine points better than President Barack Obama’s approval rating in exit polls, a pattern that would doom the party with Biden polling at or below 40 percent.

Democrats are also ahead in gubernatorial polling averages for Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Internal party polling has found Democratic incumbents in some gubernatorial races polling double digits ahead of Biden on both job approval and favorability.

“They see governors taking action and give them credit for it,” said one Democratic strategist involved in gubernatorial contests about voters. “In Michigan in focus groups recently, people complained that they don’t know what it is getting down on the national level, but people know they got $400 back from [Michigan Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer because of auto insurance refunds.”

If Democrats lose the House, it could extinguish Biden’s legislative policy goals for the last two years of his term, but if Democrats can hold the Senate, they can still approve his judicial nominations and blunt House Republicans’ efforts to derail his administration with hearings and investigations. And, after the Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, Democrats holding on to the governorships in states with Republican legislatures could determine whether abortion remains legal there.

“The question is, are there forces in the election more powerful than the disappointment in Biden?” asked Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist. “The answer is yes, and that is opposition and fear for MAGA, which is the thing that has driven the last two elections.”

Rosenberg’s reference to Make America Great Again, Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, is a nod to the tie many Republican nominees have to the former president. His endorsement boosted many, such as Walker, Oz and Vance, in their primaries. Democrats hope Trump’s embrace of those candidates will persuade more centrist voters in swing states to vote against them.

Democratic candidates have also posted strong fundraising numbers in recent days, with Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democrat running against Vance, raising $9.1 million in the second quarter of the year and Stacey Abrams, who is making her second run for governor in Georgia, announcing massive fundraising totals between two campaign accounts.

Republicans, for their part, expect the polls to shift after Labor Day, when the GOP nominees are settled, ads flood the states about issues such as rising inflation and crime, and voters begin to tune in to the campaigns. On key issues like inflation, crime and immigration, the GOP maintains clear advantages over Democrats.

“There’s no such thing as the perfect candidate,” said Terry Sullivan, a GOP operative. “There’s absolutely an opportunity for the winds to shift over the next four months, but right now it’s a gale force against Democrats, and it’s unlikely to turn 180 degrees between now and Election Day.”

Georgia, which represents one of the GOP’s best chances of flipping a seat, has been an especially worrisome race in Republican circles. NRSC staff members have been concerned about the recent performance by Walker and did not know, for example about his multiple nonpublic children. They encouraged a reset of his campaign operation, which began to happen this past week, with the hiring of O’Donnell, veteran strategist Gail Gitcho as a senior adviser and Chip Lake as a consultant on the campaign.

“I don’t know anyone who has confidence in the campaign including people on the campaign. He doesn’t have standard candidate discipline,” said Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host in Georgia. “He just doesn’t have a deep grasp of the issues nor really the desire to learn those issues. My sense is he just thought he could carry the Trump flag through Georgia and rally enough Republican candidates, and never thought about independent voters.”

Erickson said when he offered Walker an hour on his conservative talk radio show, the candidate declined, even as other candidates came on. An aide later told Erickson they didn’t want him on “free form” for an hour, according to Erickson.

Some of the NRSC staff are expected to visit Georgia to meet with his campaign team in the coming weeks to talk about how to help the campaign, a person with knowledge of the visit said. Trump adviser Susie Wiles, who also works for the NRSC, has taken a more aggressive role in trying to help his campaign, people familiar with the matter said.

Concern has grown among advisers to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had previously embraced Walker as a candidate, a person familiar with the matter said. Walker, for his part, has told staff that he trusts few people — particularly outside entities like McConnell whom he previously did not know, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the NRSC, said the GOP candidates were well positioned to win in November. “We don’t get distracted by Beltway gossip and intrigue,” he added.

Walker has tried in recent months to make inroads with GOP power brokers, and has impressed some. Brian Ballard, a major Republican lobbyist, said he recently held an event for Walker at his Washington office after being asked by a mutual friend.

“Everyone in the group came away hugely impressed with his grasp on policy and his charm and his desire to help America,” Ballard said. “I am a big believer that he can win.”

Walker’s spokeswoman Mallory Blount said in a statement that “voters of Georgia are going to see Warnock for who he really is — a Washington elitist who votes with Joe Biden instead of his state.”

The situation in Pennsylvania is also challenging for the GOP, as Oz digs his way out of the months of personal attacks from his Republican primary rival, David McCormick, whom he beat by fewer than 1,000 votes. Fetterman, his Democratic opponent, has been recovering from a stroke since mid-May. The Democrat has struggled to regain the ability to speak fluidly but is expected to resume campaign events in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, Democrats have settled on a strategy of hammering Oz further, focusing on his recent return to Pennsylvania after living for decades in New Jersey, New York and Florida. Fetterman has trolled Oz on social media over his immense wealth.

“Dr. Oz’s biggest disadvantage in the race for Pennsylvania Senate is being from New Jersey,” said Rebecca Katz, a consultant for Fetterman, before noting that Oz or his campaign had misspelled his address in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., on a recent federal form.

Oz’s campaign believes there is plenty of time to reset the playing field.

“Dr. Oz had tens of millions of dollars in negative ads dumped on his head and still won the most brutal primary in the country — that speaks directly to a strong candidate,” said Erin Perrine, an Oz consultant, who said the campaign planned to hit Fetterman for his record on criminal justice, his work ethic and his support for Biden. “The opportunity to run up Fetterman’s negatives is endless.”

Nachama Soloveichik, a GOP consultant who helped run retiring Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s campaigns, said that Oz is untested as a general election candidate, but she would still bet on him in November. “I’d still rather be a Republican than a Democrat in this environment,” Soloveichik said.

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.