The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the GOP could win the Senate, despite itself

And despite Herschel Walker

Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley delivers remarks during a rally for U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker last month. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

With the 2022 election a little more than a month away, there’s evidence that Republicans are gaining in some key Senate races. Perhaps those polls showing that certain candidates were majority-wrecking liabilities for the party were flawed!

Or perhaps they are liabilities, and it just might not matter. Indeed, Republicans might still win the Senate, but it would be, it seems, despite themselves.

And as Herschel Walker’s personal problems mushroom, that’s something we should all keep in mind.

A new CBS News/YouGov poll out of Arizona is one of the best distillations of this dynamic to date. It shows GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters, who has largely been abandoned by the GOP establishment, trailing Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) by just three points, 51 percent to 48 percent. That’s a margin-of-error race, and it’s one of the closest polls to date (though a couple others have shown the race very close as well).

So have voters suddenly warmed to Masters? Not really.

Despite him being competitive with Kelly in the poll, it also shows 55 percent of Arizonans say Masters is “extreme” rather than “mainstream.” It also shows a whopping 63 percent say they dislike how Masters handles himself personally.

And many Republicans share these views. About 3 in 10 (29 percent) say Masters is extreme, while 26 percent dislike him personally. But only 12 percent decline to support him. He gains the support of nearly 9 in 10 Republicans, including many who regard him as extreme and don’t like him.

Masters is also polling competitively despite the alternative being quite a broadly acceptable candidate. The poll shows voters say they like Kelly personally by a 57-43 margin — including 24 percent of Republicans. Just 34 percent of voters regard him as extreme. And yet, the poll suggests, he might lose anyway.

This has been the story of most races that could decide control of the Senate.

In Georgia, the same pollster last month showed voters disliked Walker by a 58-42 margin — before the most recent revelations — but liked Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) by the same margin. Warnock’s job approval was in positive territory, 54-46, and significantly more Warnock voters said they were “very enthusiastic” (68 percent) than Walker voters (52 percent).

Yet the poll was again in the margin of error: Warnock 51-49.

In Pennsylvania, a Fox News poll asked people about their motivations for voting for their chosen candidate. About as many Oz voters said they were supporting him despite “some reservations” (34 percent) as said they were “enthusiastic” about supporting him (38 percent). For Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), just 20 percent expressed reservations, while 61 percent said they were enthusiastic.

Yet Oz closed the gap significantly from the previous poll, from trailing by 11 to trailing by just 4.

Finally comes the other key race in which Republicans appear to have a candidate problem: Ohio. A recent Marist College poll showed Republicans viewed their party’s candidate, J.D. Vance, favorably by just a 45-point margin (58-13), compared to Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D-Ohio) 76-point margin among Democrats (79-3). Independents also disliked Vance by a 15-point margin but liked Ryan by an 8-point margin.

And yet the race was virtually tied: Vance 46, Ryan 45.

All of these seemingly discordant findings have a common thread: partisanship. In each case, the GOP candidate is less popular and their voters are less enthusiastic about them. But they retain a fighting chance because the alternative is a Democrat. Often, many more Republicans than Democrats will emphasize their vote is about opposing the other guy (or party).

That may be in part because Democrats are in power — midterms very often favor the opposition party for this reason — but it also reflects how weak the GOP candidates are: Even if the polls are off, the difference between candidate popularity and candidate performance is striking.

It’s also entirely possible that these GOP candidates could gain in the closing weeks, as it becomes clearer to voters just how pivotal each of these races could be for control of the Senate. It would be one thing if Walker’s race were the difference between Republicans having 54 or 55 seats, or between 45 and 46 seats. But the evidence — and the GOP’s instantaneous decision to stand by Walker — suggest they’ll emphasize that this could be their majority-making race. And indeed, some are just coming out and acknowledging this is a brutal, cold calculation that is about political power, first and foremost.

Indeed, perhaps better than any other race this cycle or in recent years, Georgia will show just how much people actually care about a candidate’s personal life. And the Arizona poll reinforces how the Walker revelations, which until very recently almost definitely would’ve been a dealbreaker and a crippling blow to the GOP’s majority hopes, might not be.