Leading up to the primaries this year, there was a concern in Republican circles that some ideologically radical or extremely controversial candidates could win GOP Senate primaries, putting otherwise winnable races into question. While the party seemingly avoided the worst of that, with candidates like Kathy Barnette in Pennsylvania and Eric Greitens in Missouri losing their primaries, another issue is emerging – inexperience. These first-time GOP candidates are struggling on the campaign trail, which could allow Democrats to keep control of the Senate, and potentially even increase their majority.
Some Senate GOP candidates who were initially considered to be strong opponents of Democrats this cycle, despite their lack of previous political experience, are struggling on the campaign trail. The most notable examples are Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. While both are household names, neither has held public office before, and both are struggling to resonate with voters. Walker’s campaign has been plagued with public gaffes and scandalous personal stories. Oz, who narrowly won a nasty GOP primary, has been characterized as AWOL on the campaign and criticized for taking vacations rather than campaigning.
Importantly, these were both considered winnable races for Republicans heading into this cycle. President Biden only narrowly carried both Pennsylvania and Georgia in the 2020 election, and the political headwinds have blown in Republicans’ favor in the two years since. Yet, recent polls show Democrats ahead in both races.
Of the several polls conducted in July, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) led Walker by an average of 4.4 points, a notable lead considering Warnock only won his previous race by 2 points in what was a more favorable national political climate for Democrats. In Pennsylvania, the story looks worse for Republicans. In a handful of polls conducted in late July, Democratic nominee John Fetterman led on average by double digits. And keep in mind, this is for retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-PA) seat, so a Fetterman win and no other seats flipping would expand Democrats’ majority in the currently 50-50 chamber.
While Walker and Oz represent the most glaring examples of this phenomenon, the list of underperforming GOP candidates doesn’t stop with them. In Ohio, JD Vance, another candidate with scant previous political experience, is currently trailing Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) in the polls. This race is to fill retiring Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-OH) seat, making it another pickup opportunity for Democrats. One difference here is the political dynamics in Ohio. It is a much redder state than Georgia or Pennsylvania, with Trump carrying it by 8 points in 2020. This political reality could save Vance from what has otherwise been an uninspiring campaign so far.
Conversely, Republicans are not polling ahead in other possible pickup opportunities, namely Arizona and Nevada. Although, those contests both project to be close.
There are still over two months before votes are cast, so Republican Senate candidates have time to right the ship. And the party is still expected to win control of the House this fall, which is more of a reflection of national political headwinds rather than decided on individual candidate quality, ensuring a divided government come 2023. But at this moment in time, Democrats look well positioned to keep control of the Senate, and expanding their majority is not out of the question.