The dynamics of this year’s battle for control of the U.S. Senate were nicely captured recently by Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: “There is a push and pull in the race for control of the U.S. Senate between the big-picture electoral environment, which clearly benefits Republicans, and the day-to-day developments on the campaign trail, which do not always clearly benefit Republicans.”
In other words, the overriding factor in competitive Senate races is the size of the likely pro-Republican midterms “wave,” which should lift all red-painted boats. But an undertow is entirely possible in individual races, as Mitch McConnell remembers.
“From an atmospheric point of view, it’s a perfect storm of problems for the Democrats,” the Republican leader said last month. “How could you screw this up? It’s actually possible. And we’ve had some experience with that in the past.”
Indeed they have. As a bit of a tonic for Democrats who are sinking into a slough of despond about the midterms, and the possibility of a Republican Senate that can thwart Joe Biden’s appointments and legislation, here’s a reminder of the three ways recent Republican Senate candidates have managed to blow races they should have won.
Being too wacky
While Republicans generally performed extremely well in the 2010 midterms, they fumbled two Senate races they were initially expected to win, in Delaware and in Nevada.
In Delaware, Republicans had a star Senate candidate in five-term congressman, three-term governor, and one-term lieutenant governor Mike Castle, a moderate who had been in statewide office for an incredible 30 straight years. He was heavily favored to flip the Senate seat held by Democratic place-holder Ted Kaufman, appointed to the seat when its long-time occupant Joe Biden became vice-president. But then in a huge shocker, Castle lost the GOP primary to veteran right-wing crank and Tea Party celebrity Christine O’Donnell, who had lost to Biden in a landslide two years earlier. After a disastrous general election campaign best remembered for the efforts she had to undertake to deny that she was a witch (a possibility she had herself raised in a 1999 appearance on Bill Maher’s show Politically Incorrect), she lost badly to underdog local elected official Chris Coons, who holds the seat to this day.
That same year Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid was in deep trouble in Nevada. His job approval ratings were terrible, he was losing in polling matchups against every named Republican opponent. But when the most formidable of those opponents had a campaign meltdown (see below), he drew a general election fight with far-right former legislator Sharron Angle. The Republican nominee proceeded to alienate voters with out-there statements opposing the regulation of health insurers even as Reid used his lavish campaign treasure to remind voters of her past remarks favoring the privatization or even the abolition of Social Security — a deadly position in senior-heavy Nevada. Reid came back from near-political death to beat Angle by five points.
The ultimate example of a Republican Senate candidate being too nutty even for deep-red-state voters came in Alabama in 2017, in a special election to fill the vacancy created when veteran senator Jeff Sessions resigned to (briefly) become Donald Trump’s attorney general.
The eventual Republican Senate nominee, Judge Roy Moore, was a perennial candidate and a globally notorious theocrat (at one point he drove around Alabama hauling a huge stone edifice of the Ten Commandments he had tried to place in the state Supreme Court chambers). Roy had been removed twice from a state judicial post for defiance of federal courts. That he managed to snag a Senate nomination was a testament to the weakness of his rivals. The appointed incumbent and beneficiary of a Donald Trump endorsement, Luther Strange, was fatally tainted by association with the man who put him in the Senate, disgraced Governor Robert Bentley (who was forced to resign shortly after he filled the Sessions seat). Another Moore opponent was congressman Mo Brooks, whose habit of running bad campaigns was reinforced when he lost a Trump Senate endorsement in 2022. By the time Moore won the GOP nomination to face underdog Democrat Doug Jones, the judge’s extremist record and platform was being overshadowed by a drumbeat of allegations that he had engaged in creepy and even illegal misconduct toward underaged women.
It took a whole lot of crazy and creepy for a Republican to lose a Senate race in Alabama, but Roy Moore got it done; he lost to Jones in December of 2017.
Committing fatal gaffes
Even in this era of straight-ticket voting and partisan polarization, candidates can occasionally make mistakes so large that they cancel out any prior advantages. In the aforementioned 2010 Nevada Senate contest, Republicans wound up nominating Sharron Angle because front-runner Sue Lowden blew up her own campaign in one terrible moment when she endorsed the idea of patients bartering for health care services.
“You know, before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor,” she said on a local TV show. “They would say I’ll paint your house … In the old days that’s what people would do to get health care with their doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system.”
Soon “chickens for checkups” became Lowden’s unfortunate signature, and her candidacy sank like a stone.
Even more unfortunately for Republicans, in 2012 not one but two Senate nominees who seemed to be cruising towards a general election victory were felled by variations on the same exceptionally stupid gaffe: remarks defending abortions bans even in cases of a pregnancy caused by rape.
In Missouri, Congressman Todd Akin was favored to defeat incumbent Democratic senator Claire McCaskill before he answered a question about rape exceptions for abortion in this manner:
First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
The ignorant scientific assertion made immeasurably worse by the suggestion that victims are lying about rape was disastrous for Akin, leading to calls by both members of the Republican presidential ticket (Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan) for Akin to quit the Senate race and let the party choose someone less offensively bone-headed. Back-peddling and whining all the way, Akin stayed in the race and cost Republicans a Senate seat they expected to win easily.
A while after Akin’s fatal gaffe, Indiana treasurer and Senate nominee Richard Mourdock got caught in his own rape-abortion snare when he said:
The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.
Tea Party favorite Mourdock was already in a tight race against Democrat Joe Donnelly after upsetting veteran Republican Senator Dick Lugar in a primary. His suggestion that God wanted women to be raped offended people across the political spectrum, and had a lot to do with his eventual loss to Donnelly.
The twin defeats in Indiana and Missouri produced a whole cottage industry of Republican consultants hired to train conservative men on how to talk about women.
Running bad campaigns and having bad luck
Almost by definition losing Senate campaigns are not ideally competent. And good candidates are often the victims of bad landscapes for their party in a given election cycle. But sometimes campaigns that should succeed are met with a perfect storm of candidate fecklessness and external crosswinds.
That arguably happened to Republicans in the two most fateful recent Senate contests: the twin general election runoffs defeats in Georgia in January of 2021 that gave Democrats control of the Senate and a governing trifecta in Washington.
Now that Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are in the Senate representing a state carried by Joe Biden, it may not be fully appreciated how heavily David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were favored when the runoff campaign began. But they were the betting favorites until late in the race, as Fortune reported:
According to the bets placed on the race — which often predict outcomes more accurately than polls — Republican candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were both cruising to relatively easy wins. “Until just before the election, people betting their own money reckoned that Republicans had this in the bag,” says Thomas Miller, a Northwestern University data scientist who calculated the chances of victory in each race based on prices from the PredictIt.org political betting site.
How did Republicans blow it? It was a team effort.
Appointed senator Kelly Loeffler, who was running in an all-party special election for the right to finish Johnny Isakson’s term after the veteran senator resigned for health reasons, spent much of the cycle frantically trying to head off a challenge from conservative Trump ally Doug Collins. Indeed, a big part of her strategy for making the runoff against Democrat Raphael Warnock was to keep Trump from endorsing Collins by becoming more MAGA than any Senate candidate in the country. She pursued and received an endorsement from the already-notorious Marjorie Taylor Greene. And she ran ads calling herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun.”
Loeffler beat Collins for a runoff spot, all right, but only after alienating the swing voters she was originally appointed to attract, while giving Warnock a free ride until after November.
Meanwhile, incumbent David Perdue was running a reelection campaign that paled in self-discipline, aggressiveness, and grassroots organization compared to Democrat Jon Ossoff’s. At a crucial moment in late October, when Perdue was trying to reach 50 percent and avoid a runoff, Ossoff called him a “crook” in a debate, leaving the incumbent spluttering and then refusing to participate in further debates through the runoff. This enabled the Democrat to debate an empty podium in December.
Perdue also got unlucky, contracting COVID-19 and having to go into quarantine five crucial days before the runoff.
But both Georgia Republicans got unlucky (albeit justly) down the stretch when their professed political lord and savior Donald Trump undermined their campaigns by coming into the state to campaign for them and then spending much of his time complaining about the state’s “rigged” election machinery. By near-universal assent, Trump’s rhetoric dampened GOP base turnout and in combination with the smart, tough and well-organized Democratic campaigns, cost Perdue and Loeffler their seats and Republicans their Senate control.
None of these examples, of course, mean that Republicans will misplay enough 2022 Senate races to cost them a victory they might otherwise win. But you cannot blame Mitch McConnell for wondering if history might repeat itself in an unfortunate way.
More on the Midterms
- Are Democrats the Party of Low-Turnout Elections Now?
- New Midterms Data Reveals Good News for Democrats in 2024
- The Return of the Emerging Democratic Majority?