early and often

6 Awful GOP Candidates Who Could Save the Democratic Senate

Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters is just scary enough to lose if the Republican midterm wave isn’t high. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In a midterm election the U.S. House results are typically a product of overall national party preferences. Voters who are disappointed in President Biden probably aren’t going to go out of their way to support their Democratic representative in the House, even if she has brought home the bacon and handled constituent services well for years. And since all 435 House seats are up for election every two years, any “wave” in party preferences (which almost always cuts against the party controlling the White House) is going to shift a serious number of seats to the “out party.” That, in a nutshell, is why Republicans are heavily favored to flip the five seats they need to grab the Speaker’s gavel in November.

Gubernatorial races can sometimes defy a midterm wave because they tend to revolve around state issues. And U.S. Senate races are somewhere in between: Senate candidates are highly visible statewide presences who over time can build a base of support that extends beyond their party; and conversely, there are some Senate candidates so flawed that they under-perform their party. Only one-third of the Senate is up every three years, so each cycle has a unique “landscape” that can reinforce or counteract any national party wave.

The 2022 Senate landscape favors Democrats on paper. They are defending only 14 seats, none of which are in states carried by Donald Trump in 2020, while Republicans are defending 20 seats, two of which (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) are in states Biden won in 2020. But that’s misleading. Many of the 2022 Senate races are in states that were very close in 2020. So a uniform pro-GOP swing of just a few points could sweep Democratic seats in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada into the GOP column, while putting Republican-held seats in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin out of reach. An even bigger pro-GOP wave could, in theory, engulf Democratic senators in New Hampshire and possibly even Colorado.

Democratic hopes of hanging on to the Senate (which is important even if they lose the House, and their trifecta, since the Senate confirms presidential executive and judicial nominees) depend on minimizing the overall GOP wave while over-performing in races where their candidates are simply superior to the GOP’s. Fortunately for the Donkey Party, Republicans have some Senate nominees with real weaknesses. And so far nearly all of these questionable candidates owe their nominations to the favor of Trump, with all the attendant peril this association might bring in a general election that is supposed to be a referendum on Biden.

Let’s look at a few of these strange elephants.

Mehmet Oz: The TV Doc Who Can’t Heal Himself

Dr. Oz famously won a Senate nomination for the open seat now held by Republican Pat Toomey by an eyelash, with just 31 percent of the vote. He benefited from his vast name ID as a TV celebrity; his considerable wealth; and his surprising (certainly in Pennsylvania MAGA circles) endorsement from Trump. He has no particular geographical base in the state, having parachuted in just before launching his Senate bid. And he has no real issue profile, beyond the positions and messages he has borrowed from the 45th president and from the national GOP. At this point he is basically a generic Republican candidate with a hypothetical appeal to low-information voters and more than a few vulnerabilities, including his carpetbagger status, his dual Turkish citizenship, and his shaky MAGA credentials.

His opponent, Democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman, has his own issues, most notably the stroke he suffered just before handily winning the May 17 primary. But the lieutenant governor and former small-town mayor also has a united party, a base in normally Republican-leading southwest Pennsylvania, and an eccentric regular-guy persona that may contrast well with the very plastic Dr. Oz:

In the one public general-election poll, in June, Fetterman led Oz by a 46-37 margin, with much stronger favorability ratings. It’s far too early to say Oz’s campaign needs a miracle cure, but it does need an expert diagnosis and treatment.

Herschel Walker: The Empty Uniform

It was considered a coup for the Georgia GOP when Donald Trump talked his old friend, the football legend Herschel Walker, into moving from his longtime home in Texas to his native Georgia and running for incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock’s U.S. Senate seat. His high name ID in Georgia and his reputation as a soft-spoken man of strong character helped him easily dispatch a field of May 24 primary opponents who, with varying degrees of volume, questioned his background (particularly the incidents of violence he confessed to in his 2008 memoir about his longtime struggle with dissociative identity disorder). But some Republicans were quietly troubled by Walker’s refusal to expose himself to mainstream-media interviews or candidate debates.

And since the primary the former Heisman Trophy winner, pro-football veteran, Olympic bobsledder, and mixed martial-arts fighter has been afflicted with a series of own-goal gaffes, exposure of misstatements about his credentials, and revelations of three out-of-wedlock children he had not seen fit to mention publicly. Most recently, the Daily Beast reported (without specific attribution) that Walker’s campaign staff and donor base are in near-revolt:

Emails and texts show advisers discussing how they don’t trust Walker — both to tell the truth to them and to handle campaign events properly — and harboring concerns that he isn’t mentally fit for the job.

He spouts falsehoods “like he’s breathing,” this adviser said — so much so that his own campaign stopped believing him long ago.

“He’s lied so much that we don’t know what’s true,” the person said, adding that aides have “zero” trust in the candidate. Three people interviewed for this article independently called him a “pathological liar.”

Republicans are dismissing these reports as the product of partisan malice, but at some point Walker’s heroic image may take a real hit. The word-salad style of his public utterances doesn’t bode well for a general election where he will have to debate the Reverend Warnock, a man who has spent years preparing and delivering weekly sermons. He will be helped by a potentially strong statewide Republican ticket led by Governor Brian Kemp. But in a recent Quinnipiac poll, Walker was running ten points behind Warnock and eight points behind Kemp. He could be the weak link in the Georgia GOP ticket, and in the Republican drive for control of the Senate.

Blake Masters: The Front-runner With Fringe Views

Like the Warnock-Walker race, Arizona’s Senate contest features a Democratic incumbent (Mark Kelly) who has been raising money at a blistering pace. And while Herschel Walker has struggled to make his viewpoint and background known, the Arizona GOP front-runner and Trump endorsee Blake Masters has been all too clearly expressive about his deeply reactionary, and perhaps even proto-fascist, worldview. Yes, some of the Masters utterances that have recently seen the light of day were made as a college undergraduate. But he’s only 35. And like his law-school classmate, mentor, co-author, boss, and chief campaign donor Peter Thiel, Masters’s views have remained so consistent that the earliest expressions cannot be dismissed as youthful indiscretions. As my colleague Jonathan Chait has noted, they are too consistent to explain away:

Masters, a protégé of Peter Thiel — the Silicon Valley billionaire and quasi libertarian who wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible” — has floated a variety of insane and racist theories. He has straight-up said Donald Trump won the 2020 election and suggested January 6 was a false flag directed secretly by the FBI. He blamed gun violence on Black people. (“We do have a gun-violence problem in this country, and it’s gang violence,” he said. “It’s people in Chicago, St. Louis, shooting each other. Very often, you know, Black people, frankly.”) He has endorsed the “great replacement” theory. And he has echoed far-right positions on foreign policy, opposing American entry into World War II and blaming American entry into World War I on a secret plot directed by the “Houses of Morgan and Rothschild.”

The sort of politician who would traditionally be a fringe figure, Thiel’s money and Trump’s endorsement have made Masters the GOP front-runner, particularly since his main rivals, Mark Brnovich and Jim Lamon, have been frantically competing to out-MAGA the designated MAGA candidate.

Masters is often compared to Ohio Senate GOP nominee J.D. Vance, and both appear to be from the right-wing populist “National Conservative” faction epitomized by Josh Hawley. But Vance and Hawley are both from solidly red states. Masters is not. He looks like another potential loser if the Republican wave doesn’t sweep all in its path.

Adam Laxalt: The Plain Vanilla MAGA Candidate

Former Nevada attorney general and Senate nominee Adam Laxalt is a classic Republican Establishment figure who has gone full MAGA. He is the grandson of legendary Nevada governor and senator Paul Laxalt, Ronald Reagan’s best friend in Congress. And he is also the (illegitimate) son of New Mexico Republican senator Pete Domenici, who had an affair with Paul Laxalt’s daughter.

Having achieved statewide office as attorney general in 2014, Laxalt compiled a strongly right-wing record in that office and then lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to Democrat Steve Sisolak. He then promptly became Trump’s 2020 campaign manager in the state, and has championed the ex-president’s unsubstantiated 2020 election fables. Laxalt is pure vanilla MAGA with a high name ID borrowed from his forebears.

Incumbent Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto is openly emulating her mentor Harry Reid’s 2010 reelection strategy; the late senator overcame an adverse wave election by emphasizing Republican extremism. Laxalt might just play into that same trap. Cortez Masto has led modestly in most recent general-election polls.

Eric Greitens: The Show-Me-State’s Show-His-Ass Candidate

Now and then a dominant state party will blow an easy Senate race. It happened in Missouri in 2012 when Republican congressman Todd Akin lost to left-for-dead Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill after a dumb gaffe in defense of his extremist position opposing exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban for pregnancies caused by rape. Missouri has only gotten redder since then, but if former governor Eric Greitens wins the August 2 Republican primary to replace retiring GOP senator Roy Blunt, lightning could strike again.

Greitens was pushed into an early resignation as Missouri governor after his abrasive but successful 2016 candidacy quickly led to investigations of his campaign finance practices. The situation was aggravated by lurid revelations of an extramarital affair, which allegedly culminated in abusive and intimidating efforts to cover it all up. Greitens soon launched a 2022 political comeback, charging that the allegations that brought him down as governor were invented by his political enemies. When new allegations by his ex-wife of physical abuse of their kids emerged after Greitens began running for the Senate, he again claimed to be the victim of a political smear.

Having renewed the outsider pitch that helped him become governor in 2026, Greitens has managed to stay dead even in the polls against very conservative but more conventional candidates Vicky Hartzler and Eric Schmitt. It has to be a tempting scenario for a decisive Trump endorsement prior to the August 2 primary. If Greitens wins, though, the winner of a Democratic primary featuring Lucas Kunce and Trudy Busch Valentine will be viable.

Ron Johnson: The Hammer-headed Incumbent

The only incumbent in the ranks of highly vulnerable GOP Senate candidates is Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson. The senator shouldn’t be underestimated; both the 2010 and 2016 cycles were expected to be tough for Wisconsin Republicans, but Johnson pulled off upset wins.

Still, RonJon is a hammer-headed old-school conservative who constantly says impolitic things, from dumb statements about COVD-19 precautions, to attacks on Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and the worst kinds of climate-change denial.

Johnson’s job-approval numbers are consistently underwater and he trails several major Democratic rivals in the early polls. But unlike the other Republicans on this list, he can hope that Democrats will emerge from the August 9 primary divided and short on campaign cash. Wisconsin lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes and Milwaukee Bucks scion Alex Lasry are currently in a close race for the right to face Johnson in November. Wisconsin is no more likely than other states to become the tipping point for control of the Senate after the midterms. But Democrats everywhere are hoping for a break.

More on the midterms

See All
6 Awful GOP Candidates Who Could Save the Democratic Senate