For anyone who has tried to lose weight, the frustrating reality, especially as you age, is that 80-90% of success is based on what you eat. Of course, it’s great if you engage in vigorous exercise. Or take 10,000 steps a day. But, at the end of the day, it’s both simple and downright difficult: you need a consistent diet that cuts out a lot of the things you like to eat and drink. Everything else only helps on the margins.
Politics is not so different. To win, it is important to have a strong candidate and a well-funded, well-organized campaign. But the political environment has a disproportionate impact on the success of a campaign. In a year where the environment is relatively neutral, the specific candidates matter more. But, in a year like this, when more than 70% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, when inflation is at its highest level in 30 to 40 years, and when a stubbornly powerful virus continues to wreak havoc on our health and the global economy, the environment is anything but neutral. The Democrats, who are the ruling party right now, are going to be blamed. It’s not that hard.
That’s not to say that candidates and campaigns don’t matter. Democratic incumbents this year are no strangers to tight races in less than ideal circumstances. In 2016, then-Democratic candidate Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire) unseated a Republican incumbent in a state that Hillary Clinton barely won. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet first won his seat in 2010, a terrible year for his party. Freshman senators Mark Kelly in Arizona and Raphael Warnock in Georgia have (narrowly) outplayed Biden in their first-ever races for Congress. In other words, these candidates have never known a time when they had a strong wind at their back.
But the bigger question today is whether the headwinds will be too formidable for even the strongest Democrat to overcome. While Hassan, Bennet, Kelly and Warnock all outperformed Biden in 2020 or Clinton in 2016, they did so by just one to two points. For example, Mark Kelly won 51% of the vote in 2020, two points more than Biden’s 49%. Today, however, Biden’s job approval rating in the state is an anemic 40%. To win here, Kelly would need to top Biden’s ratings by 10 points.
Given these challenges for Democrats, a GOP strategist told me the other day, “Even our candidates can’t screw it up.”
Democrats, of course, hope otherwise. And, on paper, it’s easy to see the weaknesses of some of these GOP contenders. Investigator Atlanta Journal-Constitution report of Republican Herschel Walker firms uncovered a “chain of defaults, settlements and lawsuits alleging that Walker and his firms owed millions of dollars in unpaid loans”. A AP review of “hundreds of pages of public documents related to Walker’s business ventures and his divorce, many of which have not been previously reported… detail accusations that Walker repeatedly threatened the life of his ex-wife, exaggerated claims of financial success and associates alarmed by unpredictable behavior.”
In Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz (who takes a narrow 900-vote lead in a primary election recount), has carpet issues (he just moved to the state in 2020) and has been criticized by other professionals health for controversial or questionable medical opinion he dispensed on his television show.
Both men also have the endorsement and approval of Donald Trump, who remains an unpopular figure in both states.
So, are these liabilities enough to disqualify these swing voter candidates?
“Why am I worried,” said a white voter in a recent focus group when asked what he thought of the state of the country. “Damn, where do I start man?” This voter is not an outlier. In every focus group I’ve been on this year, voters from all walks of life describe the state of the country in pessimistic terms. Voters are frustrated with high gas and food prices, and fear that what is to come will be worse. These existential concerns overshadow everything else and make a candidate’s controversial statements or behavior seem less salient than ever.
Take a look at Wisconsin, where incumbent Senator Ron Johnson is running for re-election. Johnson is no stranger to controversial and unpopular positions on everything from COVID vaccines to the January 6 attacks to climate change. But, ads attacking Johnson from Majority Forward, a Democratic SuperPAC, focus exclusively on bread-and-butter issues. most featured recent ad a person pushing a cart through the grocery store. “In Wisconsin, everything has become so expensive,” the narrator says, “because America is too dependent on China.” The ad goes on to claim that Johnson has been weak to “suppress China” and has “made it easier for China and harder for us.” another adled by Democratic group Opportunity Wisconsin, is set in a similar location (a grocery store) and adopts a similar angle, arguing that “Ron Johnson should be helping families like us, but he seems to have been helping himself…thanks to a special tax loophole that benefited his own family’s business. Then he took $5 million out of the business. He’s doubled his wealth since taking office. The purpose of these ads: to ensure that Johnson is out of touch, not with vaccines or the climate, but with the most important issue for voters this year: the rising cost of living. Expect to see ads that similarly frame Republican candidates in other other key battlefield states.
The incumbent Democrats this year are a tried and tested bunch. None had an “easy” race, and none of them were expecting one this cycle. But, they’ve never had to run in an ugly environment like this, where even a flawed opponent isn’t enough to turn the tide.