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Did amateur candidates cost Republicans the U.S. Senate?

A lot of amateurs ran for the Senate this year and lost. Here’s what you need to know.

Supporters cheer after learning Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) beat Herschel Walker in the Georgia runoff at a party in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Months before the November midterm elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) predicted that Republicans were more likely to gain control of the House than the Senate. McConnell was correct: A record number of novice GOP candidates running for the Senate — many endorsed by former president Donald Trump — failed to unseat Democratic incumbents. That’s true despite the fact that Democrats faced electoral head winds, including an unpopular president and record inflation. What’s more, Senate Republicans lost ground to Democrats, who actually increased their majority by a single seat last night when Sen. Raphael G. Warnock won reelection in the Georgia runoff, defeating Republican candidate Herschel Walker.

How did this happen? In our highly partisan era, Americans tend to cast votes based on the candidate’s party rather than any particulars about the person, far more than was true in the past. But the quality of the candidate can still make a difference in close elections — especially in races where challengers seek to unseat experienced incumbents.

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Candidate quality matters

Research finds that incumbent officeholders have an electoral advantage over challengers. Incumbents enjoy the advantages of office — such as name recognition, funding to hire staffers who can attend to constituents’ needs and the power to direct spending back to their states and districts. That’s why parties work hard to minimize the number of open seats by enticing incumbents to seek reelection.

To counteract incumbents’ advantage, parties try to recruit and nominate quality candidates rather than electoral amateurs who have never sought or held elective office. Quality candidates are more familiar with the slog of electoral campaigns, having run and won elected office before. These candidates tend to be more effective at raising campaign funds and at campaigning, and are generally better known by voters than are amateur candidates who have never run a successful campaign.

Without a quality candidate — meaning, specifically, one who has been elected before — parties may not have the financial and campaign resources necessary to garner the media attention needed to mount a strong electoral bid — especially when facing off against an incumbent.

Quality candidates are particularly helpful in Senate elections. That’s because Senate elections are statewide, more expensive, and involve more informed voters than House elections. Parties are usually especially careful to select experienced candidates for those races.

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More amateurs are running

Despite all that, our research finds that, since the 1960s, parties have been nominating fewer and fewer quality candidates for Senate races. In the 2022 election cycle, parties nominated the lowest proportion of quality candidates to oppose incumbent senators since Americans began directly electing senators in 1914. Only 30 percent of this cycle’s Senate challengers have been elected to office before. In 2020, only a third of challengers were quality candidates.

Why the decline? It is in part because primary voters increasingly value ideological purity above all, more than such considerations as the candidates’ perceived quality or electability. Republicans during the Trump era have seemed particularly focused on selecting the more ideologically extreme candidate, rather than one who has won office before. That makes extreme amateurs more likely to win primaries against more potentially moderate and electable quality candidates.

It’s also possible that ideological moderates may be declining to run as the parties become more polarized and moderates think they don’t comfortably fit either party ideologically. Moderates may even decide not to run if they think they can’t defeat more ideologically extreme amateurs in their party’s primary.

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Amateur candidates cost Republicans in 2022

That’s the pattern we have seen in 2022. Heading into Election Day, Politico identified six toss-up Senate elections in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In four of those six contests, Republican primary voters nominated Trump-endorsed amateur candidates. These failed to win an open seat in Pennsylvania or unseat vulnerable Democratic senators in Arizona, Georgia and New Hampshire.

In Pennsylvania, amateur Republican candidate Mehmet Oz failed to win an open seat that had been held by a Republican, defeated by quality candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D). In New Hampshire, Republican amateur Don Bolduc failed in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, winning over 20 percent fewer votes than the state’s reelected Republican Gov. Chris Sununu won in the same election. In a similar vein, in Georgia, amateur Herschel Walker ran 8 percent behind the state’s reelected Gov. Brian Kemp in his first-round challenge to Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, and fared worse in the Dec. 6 runoff without Kemp on the ballot.

By contrast, the best showing by a Republican challenger in a toss-up race came in Nevada, where quality candidate Adam Laxalt — who had previously been Nevada’s attorney general — lost by less than 1 percentage point to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. And the only Republican to win a toss-up race was Wisconsin’s Sen. Ron Johnson in his squeaker reelection win over Democratic quality challenger Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

Will Republicans change their strategy?

Would nominating quality candidates in competitive contests have won Republicans control of the Senate? Given that Democrats generally outperformed expectations this year, probably not. But it might have made the battle for Senate control closer.

Already, incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.) hinted that national Republicans may get more actively involved in nominating and backing candidates 2024, saying: “There will be lessons learned certainly from this last cycle.” Whether Republican leaders can steer voters away from amateurs and toward higher quality candidates in 2024 remains to be seen.

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Carlos Algara (@algaraca) is the Mary Toepelt Nicolai & George S. Blair assistant professor of politics and government at Claremont Graduate University.

Byengseon Bae is a PhD student in political science at Claremont Graduate University.

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