The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Evidence grows of GOP’s potential 2022 candidate problem

In key states, polls show Trump-backed GOP nominees are failing to capitalize on an environment that favors their side. And they’re precisely the candidates some in the party worried about.

President Donald Trump watches as Herschel Walker throws a football at the White House in 2018. Walker is now running for Senate — and running behind in a good environment for the GOP. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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On Thursday, The Post’s Philip Bump noted a pretty interesting trend in 2022 election polling: Despite President Biden’s continuing decline in the polls, voters aren’t necessarily punishing the Democratic Party as a whole for it.

Republicans are still favored to pick up seats and are likely to retake both chambers of Congress, given the very slight gains needed to do so. But dimming views of Biden haven’t translated to a further dimming of Democrats’ hopes — at least as much as one would expect or as much as they have in past elections when presidents fell out of favor.

But there’s another aspect of this that’s worth emphasizing: In several races that Republicans probably should win in a good year for them, their candidates are also lagging that national environment. The “generic ballot” hasn’t shifted as much toward Republicans as one might expect, and Republicans are also underperforming that generic ballot in swing states that should be at the top of the GOP’s takeover list. Polls suggest that could even imperil some states that should be sure things for the GOP.

Many of these states have frequently been spotlighted for their baggage-laden and extreme GOP candidates.

AARP is out with a pair of new, bipartisan polls in the crucial states of Georgia and Pennsylvania. Both went narrowly for Biden in 2020 and would be the kind of states Republicans should win in a good year. But their Senate nominees — Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz — aren’t winning.

In Georgia, the generic ballot — that is, would you prefer a generic Republican or a generic Democrat for Congress — shows the GOP at 48 percent and the Democrats at 45 percent. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) also leads in his reelection race by seven points, 52-45.

But in the Senate race, Walker trails Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) narrowly, 50-47. A plus-7 in the governor’s race and a plus-3 on the generic ballot becomes a minus-3 in the Senate race.

A Quinnipiac University poll two weeks ago showed much the same gap: Kemp deadlocked in his race but Walker trailing by 10 points.

Both polls were conducted after revelations that Walker fathered children he hadn’t publicly acknowledged.

The AARP poll in Pennsylvania also shows Oz lagging where you might expect him to be. The generic ballot favors Republicans by two points, but Oz trails Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) by six. A big reason appears to be Oz’s image rating, with is 2-to-1 negative: 30 percent favorable vs. 63 percent unfavorable.

Oz also trailed by nine points in a poll last month. In both polls, he even lagged behind GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, whose extremeness has led Republicans to suggest that they might not support him in the fall.

The evidence is more limited in other races, but it’s certainly worth watching.

In red-trending Ohio, there are few high-quality polls. But almost every poll shows a surprisingly tight Senate race between Democratic congressman Tim Ryan and GOP nominee J.D. Vance. That’s despite the fact that Ohio is the kind of state that should be a slam dunk for the GOP in a good year. As in Georgia, a poll last month showed the GOP Senate nominee badly underperforming the top of the ticket: Gov. Mike DeWine (R) was plus-15, but Vance was just plus-3.

Walker, Oz and Vance were each endorsed by Donald Trump.

One place Trump hasn’t yet made an endorsement is Missouri, another potential minefield for the GOP. The Senate primary races aren’t settled there, but the limited — and admittedly somewhat old — polling we have shows former governor Eric Greitens faring significantly worse in the general election than his top GOP opponents, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Rep. Vicky Hartzler. As in Ohio, it’s quite possible that Greitens would still win in a red-trending former swing state, but his nomination could create a significant headache in a state that shouldn’t have to be defended. (Trump last week attacked Hartzler and had words of praise for Greitens, suggesting that he could still get involved.)

Two other swing states out West are worth keeping an eye on: Arizona and Nevada.

In Arizona, the GOP primary, as it is in Missouri, is very much up in the air — both for governor and Senate. Trump has endorsed Kari Lake in the governor’s race and Blake Masters in the Senate race. But the limited polling we have suggests that both are faring slightly — albeit very slightly — worse in the general election. (GOP establishment types including Gov. Doug Ducey, who is term-limited, are rallying around Lake’s primary opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, in part because of fears about how Lake would perform in November.)

And in Nevada, a poll this week showed Trump leading by three points in a rematch with President Biden in 2024, but former state attorney general Adam Laxalt (R) trailing incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) by three points. Laxalt has been among the biggest promoters of Trump’s bogus stolen-election claims.

In the 2018 gubernatorial race, Laxalt faced similar deficits but remained competitive in what was an exceptionally good year for Democrats. So it’s not clear that he could be the liability some of these other candidates might be.

In virtually all of these states, Biden is way underwater, but that hasn’t yet translated into these Republicans performing like they might be expected to — or even showing a lead. Once we get more and better data and as we get closer to November, we’ll see if that holds.

The trend in recent years has been for down-ballot races to mirror the national environment pretty closely. But there’s a recent history of extreme Republicans jeopardizing winnable races, especially for Senate. And Republicans in 2020 actually gained House seats despite losing the presidential race, which suggests that candidates — in that case, Trump himself — can still matter.

Republicans seem prepared to again test how much candidates matter in some of these races in 2022.