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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Walter: How Much Will ‘Candidate Quality’ Matter in 2022?

At The Cook Political Report, Amy Walter shares her insights about the role of “candidate quality” in next year’s midterm elections:

Then there’s candidate quality. As ticket-splitting has decreased, the quality of the individual candidate has become less important to the outcome of a contest than the partisan make-up of the state and how the presidential candidate of his/her party performed there in the previous election. It wasn’t that long ago when a great candidate could beat a mediocre one, even when the partisan lean of the state was not in that candidate’s favor. Today, that’s become an almost impossible feat, with Senators Joe Manchin and Susan Collins as rare examples.

Even so, with the Senate divided 50-50, all it takes is one really bad candidate — or one exceptional one — to decide control of that body in 2023.

As my colleague Jessica Taylor has written, Trump is going to have a big influence on the kind of candidates who make it through the GOP primary process. Given that his choice of a candidate to promote — or denounce — is driven not by political analysis but by how loyal Trump perceives that candidate to be to him, there’s a good chance that many GOP Senate candidates will come with liabilities both known and unknown, that will make them vulnerable to defeat. Already, some strong potential candidates who have angered Trump in the past, like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, have taken a pass on running for the Senate.

At the same time, Trump casts a smaller shadow than he did back in 2017-18 when potential candidates and incumbents decided not to run — or announced their retirement — because of how toxic they perceived the Trump brand to be in the midterm election. This year, it’s Biden, not Trump in the White House, and those candidates no longer have to answer for the unpredictable and unpopular decisions coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For example, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu — a top-flight recruit for Senate Republicans — would probably have had to think twice about running in a year like 2018. If he runs in 2022, he’d instantly vault that race into one of the best pick-up opportunities for his party in the country.

At the same time, Biden’s solid — though not particularly impressive job approval ratings — also help to encourage Democratic candidates and incumbents to stick around. The fact that Democrats currently don’t have to defend any open Senate seats in 2022 is one of those small, but potentially decisive things that can make the difference between Democrats serving in the minority or the majority come 2023.

Certainly Dems would rather have more impressive candidates in 2022. Perhaps ‘candidate quality’ matters more when matched by good campaign staff quality, as was evident in the last Democratic presidential campaign.

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