poll position

Trump’s Terrible Senate Candidates Could Still Win

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: EPA-EFE/Shutterstock; Getty Images

Three months ago I took a look across the Senate landscape for the 2022 midterms and identified six Republican nominees who might turn winnable races into Democratic victories because of their MAGA extremism, their erratic personalities, and the shaky quality of their campaigns. All were Trump endorsees. They were Blake Masters of Arizona, Herschel Walker of Georgia, Eric Greitens of Missouri, Adam Laxalt of Nevada, Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Greitens took himself off the table by losing his August primary. But all of the other five — plus another uneven Trump pick, J.D. Vance of Ohio — are running well enough to win in November with some luck and a slighter stronger pro-Republican breeze than we’re seeing right now. Here’s how the GOP candidates are bouncing back in these crucial campaigns.

Blake Masters rebrands, and the Arizona race tightens

Arizona’s Senate nominee is the epitome of a fringe character lifted to a major-party nomination by rich and powerful patrons and then left for dead in a general election. After winning the GOP nomination in perhaps the most MAGA-dominated state in the country with 40 percent of the vote, Masters looked like a poor match for the vastly funded and moderate Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly. Here’s how I described him back in July:

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.

But since winning his primary, Masters shamelessly whitewashed his platform, abandoning support for “fetal personhood” on abortion, shirking past comments on Social Security privatization, and even tempering his election denialism. He’s done well enough to earn a badly needed infusion of funds from national Republicans (supplementing his subsidies from his mentor, the renegade Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel).

In the intensely polarized atmosphere of Arizona, Masters has been normalized as just another Republican on the ballot. Kelly still leads him by 4.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling averages, but his lead has been slowly shrinking. If Masters can show some self-discipline by eschewing fascist-sounding comments (e.g., his call for sacking “woke” military leaders and replacing them with “the most conservative colonels”), he could win.

Partisanship may save Herschel Walker’s imploding candidacy

In mid-summer, Trump ally Herschel Walker was trailing incumbent Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock regularly in the polls. He was struggling to keep up with Warnock financially, even as his heroic image as a football legend was eroding from a steady series of revelations about his background (including incidents of domestic violence). And Walker seemed famously tongue-tied and initially unwilling to debate his opponent, a man who had delivered Sunday sermons for many years.

Walker slowly clawed his way back into a dead heat with Warnock, awash in national Republican dollars and campaign appearances. He even agreed to an October debate appearance with the incumbent. Things were looking up, and then potential disaster struck via media reports that perhaps the most rigidly anti-abortion Senate candidate in the country had paid for a girlfriend’s abortion (well after his claimed recovery from mental illness, the explanation he offered for other lapses in judgment and character). Moments after he denounced the story as a “flat-out lie,” his son, Christian Walker, a well-known MAGA influencer on social media, denounced his dad as a serial liar and fraud. Then yet another shoe dropped as the woman who alleged the abortion revealed herself as the mother of one of the children Walker tardily acknowledged — claiming, moreover, that Walker again tried to talk her into an abortion. The candidate’s blustery denials have led him into incoherent word salads of self-contradiction.

At this point, there are signs Warnock is again opening up a real lead (3.3 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics polling averages) on Walker, who is doubling down on sheer pugnacious partisanship and the unconditional support of conservative Evangelicals who despise Warnock as a progressive Christian minister. The outcome of this race will be a real testament to the strength or the limitations of straight-ticket voting in a cycle when Georgia Republicans are generally on the offensive. There’s a significant possibility the contest — and perhaps even control of the Senate — will go into overtime thanks to Georgia’s requirement for a December general election runoff if no candidate wins a majority (there’s a Libertarian in the race likely to win around three percent of the vote).

Adam Laxalt tests the Nevada Democratic machine

Adam Laxalt, the son and grandson of U.S. senators, is not a very colorful candidate. But he is closely associated with Donald Trump and has adopted the ex-president’s 2020 election denialism along with other extremist positions. More importantly, he is from Nevada, where virtually every major race in this cycle is dead even. Republicans have a recent positive trend in the state and a good demographic profile for a midterm cycle in which Democrats are being held responsible for shaky economic conditions. Democrats have the fearsome labor-based voter-mobilization machine put together by the late Harry Reid, whose successor and protege is Laxalt’s opponent, incumbent Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.

As Ross Barkan explained recently, Nevada could be a real bellwether in November:

The Nevada Senate race can be seen as a test of whether Democrats can find a way to halt GOP gains with Latinos and compete somehow in the rural reaches of the country; Biden won Las Vegas but was crushed in the state’s sparsely populated counties. It is also a referendum on whether the statewide Democratic machine Reid built can truly outlive him.

Cortez Masto must also keep a fractious Democratic Party (famously divided between Reid stalwarts and progressive supporters of Bernie Sanders) completely intact through Election Day. And Laxalt has led in seven of the last eight polls. Anything could happen.

TV doctor Mehmet Oz gets some traction

Dr. Oz came out of a bitter May primary he very narrowly won and immediately fell into a period of inactivity that his opponent, Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, exploited with a mocking social-media campaign pointing out the Republican’s longtime New Jersey residence. Oz then committed some laughable missteps, most famously a video in which he tried to show his middle-class chops by documenting the rising price of … crudites.

But Oz has now finally gotten traction via two gambits. He’s raised questions about Fetterman’s fitness for office in light of the Democrat’s preprimary stroke (which he dramatized by constantly challenging Fetterman to debates; they have finally agreed on a single October debate). And he’s pounded his opponent as soft on crime, particularly in his role as chairman of the State Board of Pardons. The Republican and his super-PAC allies have also begun to outspend the Democrat on ads.

Fetterman led by 8.7 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling averages in mid-August. That’s down to 3.4 percent right now, giving Democrats a scare.

Ron Johnson looks to pull off a third surprise win

Wisconsin Republican senator Ron Johnson is, to put it mildly, not a widely respected lawmaker. As I observed earlier, he’s a “hammer-headed old-school conservative who constantly says impolitic things, from dumb statements about COVID-19 precautions to attacks on Social Security as a ‘Ponzi scheme’ and the worst kinds of climate-change denial.” But this Trump ally keeps defying early expectations that he’s toast in his next campaign. He upset Russ Feingold in 2010 and again in a 2016 rematch. And despite chronically lousy job-approval numbers, RonJon seems to be pulling ahead in a tight race against Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.

It’s no mystery how Johnson is making gains on Barnes: He’s hitting him relentlessly as an enemy of law enforcement and a friend of rioters and other criminals, as my colleague Matt Stieb recently explained:

Ads for Johnson have often focused on an interview Barnes gave in 2020, weeks after the murder of George Floyd, in which the Democrat repeated a tenet of the “defund the police” movement. “We need to invest more in neighborhood services and programming for our residents, for our communities on the front end,” Barnes said then. “Where will that money come from? Well, it can come from overbloated budgets in police departments.”

Barnes led Johnson regularly in the polls as recently as mid-September. But the Republican has now pulled ahead; he’s up six points among likely voters in the latest sounding from the highly regarded Marquette Law School survey. In hyperpolarized Wisconsin, any lead is significant, and pollsters have a recent history of underestimating the GOP vote in that state. The race is still too close to call, but RonJon could do it again. The incumbent probably did himself no favors by closing his final debate with Barnes by calling him anti-American after being asked to say something admirable about his opponent. But Wisconsin voters are used to his ways.

Ohio’s red tilt boosts J.D. Vance’s uneven campaign

I didn’t include the contest between Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Tim Ryan in my earlier take on bad Republican candidates because I thought Ohio’s red complexion would lead to a relatively easy Vance win despite his shortcomings. That could ultimately transpire. But at present, Ryan is hanging in there. He’s running a classic Sherrod Brown–style populist campaign that brings him into unapologetic conflict with some Democratic policies on globalization and immigration. And he’s beaten up quite a bit on Vance’s erratic career and venture-capitalist background.

For his part, Vance has run an uneven and often underfunded (and disorganized) general-election campaign after a late Trump endorsement lifted him to the GOP nomination over a large and scattered field. In no small part thanks to national party assistance, Vance has closed the fundraising gap. But the polls are still tight. The RealClearPolitics averages show Vance up by 0.8 percent. By contrast, Ohio’s not-very-Trumpy Republican governor Mike DeWine is ahead by 17.7 percent in his reelection contest. The Hillbilly Elegy author could soon be writing his own political eulogy soon if he’s not careful.

More on the 2022 midterms

See All
Trump’s Terrible Senate Candidates Could Still Win