In a true wave election, surprises happen. Those surprises tend to break in the same direction, in favor of the “out” party, and polling provides only limited insights before the autumn. That said, when it comes to the statewide races for governor or U.S. Senate that will be decided in November, the GOP had better be hoping for a lot of surprises.
In statewide races across the country where Republican primary voters saw fit to ratify former President Donald Trump’s endorsement—at least, where he was not giving his nod to the incumbent, who maintains a preexisting relationship with his or her voters—the polls suggest the GOP candidates are floundering.
Take Pennsylvania, for example. Because the Keystone State is crucial to Republican electoral objectives, you might think the party would have managed the process better than it did in 2022. It did not. There, self-help guru Mehmet Oz, a New Jersey native and dual Turkish citizen who promised to forego classified intelligence briefings so he could maintain his ties to Ankara, won the Republican Party’s nod for U.S. Senate. Doug Mastriano, a true MAGA believer who seems more fixated on relitigating 2020 than contesting his own race, won the gubernatorial nomination (albeit with a boost from cynical Democrats). How are these candidates faring so far? Not well.
In the race between Oz and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Oz has not led in any poll of registered or likely voters. Indeed, in the most recent Fox News survey of the race, Oz trails his Democratic opponent by double digits. The candidate’s apparent disinterest in the race—spending the general election variously at his New Jersey residence, South Florida, and Ireland—hasn’t helped. Mastriano finds himself in the same boat—trailing Democrat Josh Shapiro, sometimes by double digits, though that race is marginally tighter than the U.S. Senate contest. It seems that campaigning in the state you’re seeking to represent counts for something.
What about Georgia? Here, we have a real test of how the former president’s heterodox mien plays with voters in an increasingly purple state. Georgia’s Republican voters rejected an energetic effort by Trump and his allies to oust Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary, and they’ve been rewarded for their prudence. Kemp maintains a lead, with varying degrees of comfort, in nearly every survey of his race against perennial candidate Stacey Abrams. By contrast, freshman Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who won an upset victory in January 2021 in a special election, enjoys a consistent lead over Herschel Walker. The former football star faced no real challenge in the race for the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination, but that was due in no small part to Trump’s early support for and encouragement of Walker’s candidacy.
Given Ohio’s rapid rightward drift over the last decade, the race for U.S. Senate in the state should not be nearly as competitive as it seems. FiveThirtyEight’s average of the polling in that race gives Democrat Tim Ryan a two-point advantage over J.D. Vance, an accomplished figure who has tried to lend some intellectual heft to Trump’s populist reconceptualization of the Republican Party. Here, too, the contrast with the gubernatorial race is valuable, as incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to easily bat away his challenger, former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. Also unlike in the U.S. Senate race in the Buckeye State, Trump pointedly declined to endorse a candidate in the primary race for the state’s gubernatorial nomination, where multiple MAGA-flavored candidates split the anti-DeWine vote.
But what about Trump-backed statewide candidates who are outperforming expectations in open races? Trump backed Alabama U.S. Senate Candidate Katie Britt, albeit after it became apparent that his preferred candidate, Rep. Mo Brooks, would lose. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has not received a formal Trump endorsement but who hasn’t been rejected outright (sorry, Vicky Hartzler), appears capable of defeating the irreparably flawed Eric Greitens and keeping his state’s seat in the GOP column. Outside dark red states, Trump-backed former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt has a shot at ousting incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, though polling of the race has been sporadic and has produced mixed results.
This record should impose some caution on Arizona’s Republican voters, who will head to the polls for the state’s primary race next week. Republicans there appear inclined to disregard these signals. Recent polling indicates that Republicans will back Kari Lake for governor and Blake Masters for Senate in this purple state. Lake’s appeal seems limited to her willingness to endorse Trump’s preferred myths around the 2020 election. Likewise, Masters’s enthusiastic claim that “Trump won in 2020” and his penchant for offending polite sensibilities has endeared him to Arizona’s GOP voters. Both candidates would, however, likely accelerate their state’s drift toward the Democratic Party.
Even in states that are less competitive for Republicans, Trump’s faulty political judgment could artificially reduce the gains the GOP expects in November. Retaining Maryland’s statehouse after two consecutive terms of Republican governance would be a heavy lift, but at the top of the ticket is Dan Cox, a January 6 rally attendee who called Mike Pence a “traitor.” He could represent a drag on GOP candidates farther down the ballot.
In a midterm election year in which voters had not expressed a clear preference for one party over another, Republican primary voters’ unforced errors would cost the party dearly. And yet, this is not such a year. This year’s tailwinds could sweep many of these candidates into office despite their obvious flaws. As Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter observed, “there’s nothing new about a late summer ‘reassessment’ of midterm assumptions.”
Nevertheless, questionable candidate selection cost the GOP winnable statewide seats in prior wave years in which the the party made inroads into dark blue states. In 2010 (Colorado’s Ken Buck, Connecticut’s Linda McMahon, and Nevada’s Sharron Angle) and in 2014 (Michigan’s Terri Lynn Land and erstwhile Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s challenge to New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen), the GOP squandered the chance to fully realize the moment’s potential. That history seems to be repeating in 2022.