May 28, 2023

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Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin speaks as former president Donald Trump looks on during a "Save America" rally at Alaska Airlines Center on July 9 in Anchorage, Alaska.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Democrats’ special election victory in Alaska serves as a reminder that yes, candidates do matter.
Politics Editor
Two key Republican leaders can’t agree on whether they have good or bad candidates running for Senate this November.
Two weeks after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a swipe at the “candidate quality” of this year’s Republican nominees, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the head of the organization in charge of winning back the Senate majority, made the opposing case in the Washington Examiner, a conservative news outlet. In an op-ed, Scott argued that Republican candidates were strong because they were chosen by Republican voters. In short, insulting the nominees for Senate is tantamount to declaring that, as Scott put it, “you have contempt for the voters who chose them.”
This belief that primaries produce strong candidates is part of Scott’s larger philosophy, rooted in his own frustration with establishment figures who overwhelming backed his opponent in Florida, then-Attorney General Bill McCollum, in the 2010 primary for Florida governor. But it’s also rooted in his theory that “all our candidates are great” simply because they’re running against Democrats.
In short, Scott and McConnell are sparring over an age-old question in politics: How much do candidates matter when it comes to high-stakes elections?
That question came into even starker focus this week, when Mary Peltola, a former state legislator, officially won a ranked-choice special election in Alaska, becoming the first Democrat to hold that House seat in 50 years. Her victory would be unlikely if not for the weaknesses of her opponent, former Republican governor Sarah Palin, whose reputation in Alaska took a hit after she left the governorship to run for vice president.
For the vast majority of congressional elections, the name of the candidate — let alone actual policy positions — is secondary to partisan affiliation. The composition of an electorate usually just does not have enough swing voters to tip the outcome in a different direction. Alaska’s special election was an exception to that rule.
When the stakes are especially high and clear, every now and then candidate quality marks the difference between a Democratic or Republican congressional majority. And that might be the biggest obstacle Republicans face in the midterms.
For all the attention and drama that primaries stir up, they weren’t initially an American institution.
States didn’t start holding primary elections to select party delegates for presidential nominating conventions until the early 1900s. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt became the first presidential candidate to attempt to use the primary process to win an election. (That failure led to the formation of the Bull Moose Party.)
But even if party leaders don’t get to choose the nominees outright anymore, they do have the power to sway elections — if they choose to use it.
In Alaska, three candidates appeared on the special election ballot, one Democrat and two Republicans. Yet neither party’s House campaign arm made an endorsement.
Republican Nick Begich received the fewest votes in the first round. In ranked-choice voting, that means everyone who wrote in Begich for their first choice instead gets their second choice counted. Begich supporters split their votes between the other Republican in the race, Palin, and Peltola, or left the second-choice spot blank. As a result, Peltola won by about 3 percentage points.
The special election results in Alaska might be more important as a political data point for elections forecasters than for determining the congressional majority, given that Peltola has to run again for a full term in just a couple of months. It also marks a major historical moment, as Peltola became the first Alaska Native in Congress.
But the race attracted the national spotlight for a handful of reasons: One, Palin, a 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate who was a founder of the Tea Party movement — what many experts consider to be a precursor to Trumpism — ended her flirtation with the reality television circuit to return to politics. Second, Alaska’s special election was the only show in town. While every other state is still holding primaries, Alaska held a special election after longtime Republican Rep. Don Young died. The results are one of just a handful of data points available that show a Democratic-vs.-Republican matchup before every other House race is up in November.
That spotlight made the candidates themselves a bigger focus than they’d normally be, when their race would be just one of 435 to determine the House majority. Add in the fact that a substantial number of Begich supporters wouldn’t support Palin as their second choice, and you have a clear case of a particular candidate’s weaknesses deciding an election. In fact, nearly as many Begich supporters left the second choice blank (11,222) or supported Peltola (15,445) as selected Palin (27,042).
Before Peltola’s victory, elections forecasters at Inside Elections rated the Alaska House seat “solid Republican,” undoubtedly taking into account the partisanship of the state. If anything, Alaska has trended even more toward Republicans in the Trump era, turning into an entirely Republican delegation after Begich’s Democratic uncle, Mark Begich, lost reelection in 2014. After Peltola’s victory, however, Inside Elections rated the November race — where Peltola will face the same two Republicans plus a Libertarian — as “Tilt Republican,” an acknowledgment of the importance of candidates in this particular race.
But in most cases, candidate quality simply doesn’t matter to the outcome. Alaska’s lone congressional district was one of about 20 Republican-held seats that’s holding a competitive general election. In another 188 Republican districts, Inside Elections expects Republicans to sail to victory. In those races, the individual candidates hardly register. Rather, it’s all about partisanship.
Kevin DeLuca, a Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, is working on a paper to quantify the importance of candidate quality. The basis of his measurement was newspaper endorsements in races ranging from city council to president, also taking into account that some newspapers tend to be biased toward one political party.
After crunching numbers for more than 6,000 elections spanning from 1960 to 2008, he calculated that candidate quality tends to amount to a 4-point difference in election results. Not surprisingly, it tended to have a bigger impact on statewide races (5 points), and a smaller one on U.S. House and local races (3 points). There are multiple reasons, including that voters understand that in federal elections, they’re not just voting for a candidate — they’re voting for a majority party. But DeLuca also said it’s relevant that statewide candidates receive so much more attention.
In Alaska, DeLuca doesn’t discount that Democrats might have a surge of enthusiasm helping them. The generic ballot — polling that measures voters’ preferences between unnamed Democratic and Republican nominees — had heavily favored Republicans up until the end of summer. Now, it’s pretty much even. “But if they had run a better Republican there, I think they would have won,” DeLuca said.
The most notable candidate to defy partisanship in the last decade might be Doug Jones, a Democrat who managed to win a special Senate race in Alabama in 2017.
To be sure, Jones wasn’t the first Democrat to vastly outperform Trump. In fact, without Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), Republicans would currently be in the Senate majority. (Again, there’s the case that candidate quality matters.) But West Virginia and Montana have voted for Democrats for statewide office routinely in the last decade. Alabama had not.
It wasn’t until Roy Moore, a twice-removed state Supreme Court Justice, qualified for the Republican primary runoff that Jones seemed to have even the smallest sliver of a chance. That window opened a sliver more as Moore defeated a Trump-endorsed sitting senator for the nomination, before a series of stories reporting on old scandals busted the window wide-open, including uncovering sexual misconduct allegations that involved teenage girls. Moore denied the allegations.
“I would imagine he would be maxing out the model that I have,” DeLuca said of Moore’s unique failings. Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted two Ku Klux Klansmen who killed four Black girls in a Birmingham, Alabama, church in 1963, kept his nose clean during the campaign. He tapped into a national fundraising network and ginned up enthusiasm from Black voters.
And Jones won by just over 1 percentage point.
Partisanship won the seat back in 2020, when Jones lost to the former head coach of Auburn University’s football team, Republican Tommy Tuberville, Alabama’s current senator, who is not from a traditional politics background but is beloved in the state. The margin in that race was 20 points.
Republicans were preparing for a wave this November. There are few hard and fast rules in politics, but one of them is that the party in power typically performs poorly in midterm elections. As long as Republicans could make this a typical election and the candidates out of the spotlight, it was smooth sailing.
After a brief honeymoon period, Republicans got their wish. Biden couldn’t recover from falling approval ratings after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated a Democrat in the Virginia governor’s race. Republicans’ focus has been on Biden, whose approval ratings hovered in the low 40s and high 30s, or on inflation, with $5-per-gallon gas signs across the country basically functioning as a billboard to vote against the party in power. It seemed like Republican candidates would get swept up in a wave, any drag from personal problems quickly overcome by massive anti-Democratic sentiment.
But then the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and Biden had a few weeks of good news on the legislative front. He passed a huge climate investment bill that combined a popular drug pricing initiative. Inflation took a breather, and it looked like Republican candidates would have to do some of their own paddling in order to get to shore. As Ronald Brownstein put it in a recent column, “It was a referendum. Now it’s a choice.”
Some races simply become less competitive in wave years. If the national environment is already boosting one particular political party, its candidate might not need that extra four-point advantage for personal talent. On the flip side, a four-point advantage isn’t going to make a huge difference to the outcome in, say, New York, even if a particularly strong Republican nominee runs in a Republican wave.
States that Biden narrowly won in 2020 — such as Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are holding Senate races that will decide the majority. In a year where voters are particularly frustrated with Democratic politicians, the Republicans in those states should have a slight edge. But in an environment where Democratic voters are as enthusiastic as Republican voters, the partisanship of those states looks a lot like they did in 2020, a year of record turnout.
For Republicans, that’s going to present a challenge.
In his op-ed, Scott recalled each Senate nominee’s impressive resume, including “a Heisman Trophy winner,” “a successful tech entrepreneur” and “a world-renowned doctor.” As J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball noted, these candidates might appear strong on paper, but they haven’t run high-profile races before. The Heisman Trophy winner, tech entrepreneur and doctor have already dealt with their fair share of struggles.
“So, they may win their primaries because they have Trump’s endorsement,” Coleman said. “But when rubber hits the road, can they go toe-to-toe with Democrats in the debates?”
Scott thinks the answer is a resounding yes. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. In 2010, Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell’s candidacy in Delaware might have lost Republicans a single Senate seat, but that was nowhere near enough to win back the majority, Coleman noted. In 2022, with a 50-50 Senate, all it would take is one state — or one weak candidate — to decide the majority.
At this point, DeLuca said, it doesn’t seem like partisanship will be enough for Republicans to win some of the closest states. “It’s totally possible that they lose Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona — any of these super close races,” he said. “Where, if they just picked a better candidate, I think they would have easily won.”
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.
Politics Editor
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