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'Candidate Quality' Cuts Both Good and Bad

Do we get the a Sen. Vance without a Trump-led GOP?

Dallas,,Tx,-,August,5,,2022:,Jd,Vance,Speaks,On

It’s the day after the midterms, when in the Before Times we could have expected to have full results. In this new world of “defending democracy” by enacting months of voting and mailing ballots and broken voting machines, the picture is still unclear. As Micah Meadowcroft reminds us today, we shouldn’t accept this as normal. Election Day must be a day once more, when voters show up to their polling place in person with an ID. You’ll even get a sticker as a souvenir. 

But what we do know is that the expected red wave didn’t materialize, in a year when nothing seemed to be going right for Democrats. Many are quick to blame candidate quality, and especially the poor quality of Trump-endorsed candidates. Tim Carney makes the point effectively in the Washington Examiner:

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There’s a lot of noise as these midterm results flow in, and a few unsettled races at the moment, but this much is clear: Republicans would control the Senate next year had they stuck to nominating good candidates. Instead, typical of the Tea Party-to-Trump Era, Republicans in many key states nominated people who were patently unfit for office.

The senate loss in Pennsylvania, to a post-stroke John Fetterman who can’t even speak clearly, was certainly winnable by a better candidate than a celebrity doctor from New Jersey. Georgia is one of those unsettled races, but Herschel Walker was a lagging candidate who seemed determined to kneecap his own campaign at every turn, a fact reinforced all the more by Brian Kemp’s resounding victory in that state’s gubernatorial race. If Oz and Walker end up costing the GOP the senate, it will be hard not to blame Trump for propping up bad candidates. 

And yet, for those interested in moving the GOP beyond the failed pre-2016 consensus, we must also look at the Trump wins. It’s hard to imagine that Senator-elect J.D. Vance gets the GOP nomination in Ohio without Trump’s endorsement. And we shouldn’t discount a Trump effect in yesterday’s general election, either. Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2020. Vance looks set to win his senate seat by a slightly lower margin, and far behind Republican Mike DeWine’s win in the governor’s race. In a state where the 45th president is still wildly popular, did Trump get Vance over the line?

A similar dynamic is playing out in Arizona. Like Vance, Blake Masters is one of the most exciting candidates this cycle. The Trump endorsement helped him secure the nomination. And while he’s currently behind in the slow-counting general election tally (not helped by widespread issues with voting machines, to be sure), it’s possible that the popularity of both 45 and Trump-endorsed Kari Lake will be enough to give us a Senator Masters. Same story with Joe Kent in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. We could go on.

Trump was able to shatter the failed GOP consensus because of his unorthodoxy, in both style and policy. This has always been the double-edged sword of the Trump era. It delivers huge wins that would be unthinkable from a more typical politician, as well as some really head-scratching decisions. Who else would stand by Brett Kavanaugh at the height of #MeToo, and also turn to John Bolton for foreign policy advice after denouncing the Iraq war?

Trump’s post-presidency endorsements have followed the pattern. The man is nothing if not willing to surprise, and Vance, Masters, Walker, and Oz all fit that mold, for better and for worse.

So yes, it’s possible that poor Trump-endorsed candidates will cost Republicans the Senate. But the more interesting question for those of us interested in reshaping the Republican Party is this: Would you rather have a Senate majority with milquetoast establishment Republicans representing Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia—or a minority that includes Senator Vance and Senator Masters, rising stars intent on moving the Republican Party in a better direction? Do we get the latter without a Trump-led GOP? 

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