In the Republican wave year of 2010, when the GOP grabbed control of Congress and statehouses across the country, Democrats kept control of the Senate. It wasn’t easy or pretty. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who personally faced the prospect of defeat in his home state of Nevada, had to contend with a number of races where Democratic candidates were struggling to keep in the running. Many of them lost. But a sufficient number hung on that the party maintained a 51-49 majority, which was critical to giving President Barack Obama the ability to advance key elements of his agenda during the latter half of his first term.
But the Democrats would never have hung on if Republicans had nominated even minimally mainstream candidates in a number of key contests. Instead, scandal-plagued and frequently inept as campaigners, the Tea Party Republicans lost narrowly to Democrats Reid in Nevada, Chris Coons in Delaware, and Michael Bennet in Colorado.
Now, 12 years later, in another midterm election year when Republicans have significant advantages and a real chance to take the House and several key governorships, a slate of personally controversial and politically inept candidates could cost the GOP control of the Senate.
The Tea Party movement has faded. But its cruder and more dangerous successor, the cult of personality surrounding disgraced former president Donald Trump, is shaping the results of Republican primaries nationwide. In 20 GOP Senate primaries where Trump made a clear endorsement during the spring and summer, his candidates won. In a number of cases, his picks were incumbents who were likely to prevail. But in several of the most competitive races, Trump advocacy has placed Republican candidates with limited experience and significant liabilities on the ballot.
Why Democratic Prospects Are Better in the Senate
As the November 8 election approaches, there are trend lines that appear to favor the Republicans. For instance, the political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight now gives the GOP a roughly three-in-four chance of taking the House. That’s a reflection of the historic midterm advantage for the party that’s out of power, as well as the GOP’s successful gerrymandering of congressional districts and its dominant position in small states. In both cases, the Republican advantage is such that the party can get away with nominating extreme candidates—many of them endorsed by Trump—and still win. But it’s different in the fight for control of the Senate, where, FiveThirtyEight says, “Democrats currently have a two-in-three chance of holding onto the Senate, and even an outside chance of picking up enough seats to eliminate the filibuster.”
That’s because many of the most intense Senate races are in battleground states where Trump’s candidates have proven to be weak contenders in statewide contests that demand a broader appeal than is required in House contests. That’s definitely been the case with Herschel Walker in Georgia, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and J.D. Vance in Ohio.
All three candidates displaced more qualified and credible contenders in GOP primaries. And all three are now struggling in races that are likely to define which party gains control of the Senate, and by how much. If they were all to lose, Democrats could end up with a clear majority in the chamber. Even if a Democratic incumbent such as Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto were to lose, the Democrats could still keep their majority because Republican nominees in so many states are so embarrassing.
How could Trump have picked so badly? That’s not a hard question to answer.
Trump Chose Celebrity Over Political Competence
Trump ran for the presidency in 2016 as a reality-TV star who had leveraged his inflated reputation in real estate to create the impression that he knew how to get things done. Though he had no experience as a governor, a senator, or a cabinet member, he was a known entity with a significant social media following and a willingness to use incendiary statements to rile up voters. That was enough to secure him the GOP nomination and an Electoral College win in a fall race against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who ran an insider campaign at a time when voters in swing states were longing for outsiders. It was insufficient in 2020, however, as Trump’s presidential stumbles and misdeeds left him vulnerable to Democrat Joe Biden, a savvy coalition builder who was able to unite the Democratic Party in ways that Clinton did not.
But Trump learned no lessons from his defeat. In addition to denying the election results and leading a deadly attempted coup, the former president has remained convinced that celebrities are the best candidates. That was made clear by his interventions in the most competitive Senate races of 2022. as he put his weight behind candidates such as former football player Walker, TV doctor Oz, and Hillbilly Elegy author Vance.
In Georgia, the failure to vet Walker as a candidate has resulted in one of the messiest Republican Senate campaigns since another Trump pick, Judge Roy Moore, lost a critical 2017 Alabama special election to Democrat Doug Jones. After weeks of revelations about Walker’s hypocrisy as an anti-choice candidate whose ex-girlfriend says he paid for her abortion, Walker gave a debate performance that was so agonizingly inept that one writer compared it to an SNL skit. When Warnock brought up Walker’s record of lying about working in law enforcement, the Republican pulled out a meaningless honorary badge. After the moderator told him to put the prop away, Walker complained, “It’s not a prop. This is real.”
Warnock responded to the distraction by reminding voters about the stakes of the election:
My opponent Herschel Walker is not ready. The people of Georgia deserve a serious person to represent them at serious times. He claimed to be a police officer. He’s not. Claimed to work for the FBI, clearly did not. Claimed to be a college graduate, he’s not. Claimed to be a valedictorian of his class, he was not. Claimed to have 800 employees in his business, he has eight. Claimed to have started a business that does not even exist. So I guess he expects the people of Georgia now to hallucinate and imagine that he is also a United States senator. He’s clearly not ready.
When the candidates were set to debate again, Warnock showed up. Walker did not.
The race in Georgia remains predictably close, but Warnock has led in most recent surveys.
In Pennsylvania, Oz has had a hard time convincing voters to choose a longtime New Jersey resident to represent them. And his fumbles on the campaign trail have invited ferocious trolling by Democrat John Fetterman. Fetterman has even compared Oz’s past peddling of cure-alls with the TV hucksterism of Dr. Nick Riviera, the quack physician from The Simpsons. Recent polls have Fetterman leading Oz by several points in the race for the seat being vacated by Republican Senator Pat Toomey.
Trump’s Meddling Could Cost the GOP Ohio
Polls are close in Ohio as well. The Real Clear Politics average of recent surveys has Vance up just two points over Ryan—a statistical dead heat.
Ohio is a tough state for Democrats. Aside from US Senator Sherrod Brown, a progressive populist with a knack for winning working-class votes, Democrats have lost most statewide elections over the past 15 years. That track record, and the fact that Trump ran particularly well in Ohio in 2020, led pundits to assume Republicans would keep the Senate seat that GOP Senator Rob Portman was vacating.
Then Vance came along. The venture capitalist and celebrity author lived for years in California before returning to Ohio to run for the Senate. Despite a hefty financial boost from billionaire Peter Thiel, Vance went nowhere in a crowded GOP primary field—until Trump endorsed him. That got him the GOP nod. But it won’t necessarily get him the Senate seat in a race with working-class Democrat who’s going for the jugular.
In a debate last week, Ryan noted that Vance once compared Trump to Adolf Hitler but then turned around and became such an apologist for the former president that Trump described Vance as “kissing my ass.” Vance objected to Ryan’s jabs, but the Democrat didn’t let up. Painting the Republican as a puppet of the former president and out-of-state donors, Ryan told Vance, “If you think you’re going to help Ohio, you’re not. If you can’t even stand up for yourself, how are you going to stand up for the people of this state?”
Polls suggest that a growing number of Ohioans share that view. Perhaps even enough to cost the Republican Party a seat that looked like an easy win until Trump intervened.