2022 midterms

The GOP’s Glut of Rookie Candidates Could Mean Lots of Costly Mistakes

Sometimes rookie candidates can’t find their butts with both hands. Photo: Jeffrey Dean/AP

In all the discussion of potentially shaky extremist Republican candidates for the Senate and governorships this year, something obvious about them as a group should be noted before the general-election campaign gets real. The GOP has a lot of rookies in the field: people who have never run for or won public office before.

At FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver tells us that his forecast model for the midterms gives bonuses to candidates who have won significant elections in the past — not so much because office-holding is an advantage (though sometimes it is) but because “it’s the act of winning an election that counts, since it’s a sign that a candidate is acceptable to some reasonably large group of voters.” First-time candidates often make rookie mistakes.

The partisan imbalance in candidate experience this year is indeed stark. There are five Republican nominees for U.S. Senate (Blake Masters of Arizona, Joe O’Dea of Colorado, Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania, J.D. Vance of Ohio, and Herschel Walker of Georgia) who are first-time candidates, along with a sixth candidate, Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, who is a likely nominee after a September primary. There are no rookies among Democratic Senate nominees. Similarly, there are four Republican gubernatorial nominees (Tudor Dixon of Michigan, Kari Lake of Arizona, Mark Ronchetti of New Mexico, and Robert Stefanowski of Connecticut) who have never won a significant public office. Again, there are no Democrats like that who have been nominated for governor.

Will this matter in November? It’s hard to say. Political fundamentals — such as the partisan “lean” of a given state, national turnout patterns, the popularity or unpopularity of the president, the state of the economy, and big national topics like the current furor over abortion — probably matter more than any individual characteristics of candidates or their campaigns. But on the margins, in close races, inexperienced candidates can and do screw up, sometimes disastrously.

We’re seeing some possible rookie errors already, particularly in the all-important Senate races. Would an experienced candidate vanish from sight for weeks like Mehmet Oz has? Would a seasoned fundraiser struggle to raise money like J.D. Vance has? Would someone used to the pressures of a campaign look and sound as lost as Herschel Walker has? And would a candidate who understands how to win a general election in a battleground state run as fascistic a primary campaign as Blake Masters has?

Sure, inexperienced candidates can surround themselves with hired-gun mercenary staff able to make them robotically repeat poll-tested messages. But the bright lights and loud voices of a close statewide race in these intensely polarized times can produce gaffes and other sins of commission and omission in anyone whose sensitivities haven’t been pulverized by past campaigns. Inexperienced candidates can and do win. But smart bettors take experience into account when guessing how cookies may actually crumble on Election Night.

Republican Rookie Candidates Could Make Some Costly Mistakes