The names Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell have been lost to history, consigned to the dustbin of Beltway barroom trivia. For Mitch McConnell, however, they remain an all-too-fresh reminder of opportunities squandered.
McConnell became Senate majority leader in 2015, but had it not been for those four flawed and ultimately defeated Republican candidates, he might have reached his dream job years earlier. Now McConnell is trying to regain that powerful perch, and a slate of similarly problematic contenders in key states may be all that stands in his way.
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.
McConnell is well aware of the GOP’s good fortunes this year—and how easily the party could blow it. “How could you screw this up?” the once and perhaps future majority leader mused recently in Kentucky. “It’s actually possible. And we’ve had some experience with that in the past.”
He was referring to the GOP’s missed chances in 2010 and 2012, when Akin, Mourdock, Angle, and O’Donnell suffered their ignominious defeats. Akin and Mourdock each lost winnable races in Missouri and Indiana, respectively, after they both drew nearly universal condemnation for comments defending their opposition to abortion even in cases of rape. (Akin suggested that women who were raped somehow could not get pregnant, while Mourdock said that a pregnancy caused by rape is something “God intended to happen.”) Angle, a Tea Party favorite in Nevada, made plenty of head-scratching remarks of her own as she lost her bid to oust Harry Reid, then the Democratic majority leader. O’Donnell, trying to win Biden’s old Delaware Senate seat, ran a TV ad in which she said the following words verbatim: “I’m not a witch. I’m you.”
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.”
Waves are more common in the House, where voters cast ballots based more on a party label than what they know about a specific candidate. By contrast, “there’s a really pronounced, clear pattern of candidate quality being important in Senate races,” David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told me.
Privately, however, Democrats worry that the pattern no longer holds. Heitkamp told me that during her victorious 2012 race, 20 percent of GOP voters told pollsters that they were willing to vote for a Democratic candidate. By 2018, when she lost, that number had dropped to just 4 percent. The prospect that polarization now supersedes candidate qualifications is even more worrisome for Democrats in the years ahead. If Republicans capture a comfortable Senate majority this year, they could position themselves to win a filibuster-proof 60 seats by 2024, when Democrats will have to defend incumbents running in red states such as Montana, West Virginia, and Ohio, along with several others in closer battlegrounds.
The possibility of a sizable Republican majority has even larger implications for a close 2024 election, when Trump could again be on the ballot and might try to pressure his allies in Congress to overturn a narrow defeat, as he did unsuccessfully in 2020. “It would be a disaster,” Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist who spent several years at the DSCC, told me. “It would be a very dangerous situation for democracy.”
Such a GOP majority would also be different from the Republican majorities even of the recent past, filled with Trump loyalists and less likely to counter him in a potential second term as it did, at least on occasion, in the first. For that reason, Democrats are equally nervous as they are hopeful about going up against candidates such as Greitens, Walker, and Vance in the fall.
“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.