Trump Made It Worse, But It Was That Way Long Before Trump
North Carolina has two Republican senators, Richard Burr, who's retiring, and Thom Tillis, who's in the middle of his term. That doesn't make Tillis disinterested in electoral politics, not at all. The TV ad below is being run by the Results For NC PAC-- which is Tillis' own leadership PAC. And if you watch it, you'll notice it isn't go a candidate (although Tillis is supporting state Sen. Chuck Edwards); it's just a warning to folks in western North Carolina (NC-11) that they made a mistake 2 years ago and they need to clean that mistake up-- by defeating Madison Cawthorn's reelection bid.
Crackpots and extremists like the cross-dressing Nazi from NC-11 can be the fly in the ointment for a GOP takeover of Congress. Both Houses are in play. Yesterday, writing for The Atlantic, Russell Berman brought up GOP crackpots and extremists of the past-- Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell-- who denied the GOP victories in the Senate.
On paper, Republicans have a prime opportunity to recapture the Senate majority this fall. They need to pick up just a single seat to break the current 50–50 tie, and the political environment is tilting heavily in their favor. President Joe Biden’s approval rating is mired in the low 40s, inflation is rampant, and the Democratic majority rests on a trio of vulnerable incumbents in states-- Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada-- that the president carried by fewer than 60,000 votes combined in 2020.
Yet the GOP may be stuck with candidates whose pockmarked, and in a few cases, scandal-filled, résumés could render them unelectable-- or at least they would have in an earlier era. In Missouri, a state that should not be attainable for Democrats, the Republican nominee could be Eric Greitens, a former governor who resigned in disgrace over sexual-misconduct allegations and whose ex-wife has accused him in court filings of abusing her, as well as their son. The likely GOP nominee in Georgia, Herschel Walker, is a former NFL star with his own stormy past. Former President Donald Trump has endorsed celebrities making their first runs for office, J. D. Vance in Ohio and Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, whose reversals on key issues-- including, in Vance’s case, Trump himself-- offer ripe targets for critics on the left and the right. The lone vulnerable Republican incumbent, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, has campaigned against COVID-19 vaccines and has seen his popularity plummet in a state that Biden narrowly won two years ago.
...In previous years, Democrats might have rejoiced at the prospect of facing Republicans such as Greitens, Walker, Vance, and Oz. But in the Trump era, no one knows where, or whether, voters will draw a line on candidates who might have been unacceptable in the past. “The situation has really changed since 2012,” former Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota told me. Heitkamp won a close reelection race that year, before losing her seat in 2018. She said it was “an open question” whether the comments that doomed Akin and Mourdock would cost Republicans a seat in the current climate.
Like so much else about modern politics, Trump is the root of the shift. He won in 2016 despite countless liabilities, most notably the October release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape. And as Heitkamp noted, he brought in a whole new cohort of white, male voters who might be more forgiving of badly behaving men.
Trump is also largely the force propelling this year’s roster of GOP hopefuls. McConnell had tried to recruit more experienced, more establishment Republican governors for the marquee Senate races, but partly because of Trump’s continuing influence within the party, several of them passed. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu cited the highly partisan culture of the Senate in declining a campaign, while Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is considering a 2024 presidential bid instead. In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey stayed out of the Senate race after angering Trump with his refusal to back attempts to overturn Biden’s 2020 win there.
Trump “has been a fly in the ointment for them getting the level of candidates they want,” J. B. Poersch, the president of the Democrats’ top campaign super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, told me. “It’s in the way of everything, and it seems to keep getting in the way.”
The GOP’s recruitment struggle has made the race for Senate control far more of a wild card than the nationwide campaign for the House majority, where the biggest question according to most political observers is not whether Republicans will win, but by how many seats. Democrats could expand their Senate advantage even while losing the House-- a reversal of the 2018 midterms, when they recaptured the lower chamber even as Republicans gained Senate seats. Democrats are defending seats only in states Biden won (albeit narrowly), and they have opportunities to oust Johnson in Wisconsin and snag seats in Pennsylvania and North Carolina left open by GOP retirements. The possibility that Republicans will nominate Greitens in Missouri and Vance or Josh Mandel in Ohio gives Democrats an outside shot at expanding the map even farther. A bullish Biden told Democratic donors in Oregon last week that he believes the party can gain two Senate seats in November. “McConnell is right to be worried,” Doug Heye, a veteran Republican strategist, told me. “We’ve seen that the political laws of gravity don’t exist the way that they typically have. But there’s also the reality that Donald Trump was able to do things that no one else had been able to do.”
...“I don’t think anyone is celebrating now,” Justin Barasky, a Democratic strategist who also worked at the DSCC, told me. “This is par for the course when it comes to Republican candidates.” The GOP, he said, “has become so radicalized that the Sharron Angles from 2010, the Christine O’Donnells, the Richard Mourdocks of 2012, the Todd Akins-- those are the mainstream Republicans now. There are candidates who are even further to the right or even crazier than those folks, and a lot of them are going to be Senate nominees this cycle.” If the political winds keep blowing the GOP’s way, a lot of them are going to be senators too.