For anyone who has tried to lose weight, the frustrating reality, especially as one gets older, is that 80-90 percent of the success is based on what you consume. Sure, it's great if you engage in vigorous exercise. Or, put in 10,000 steps a day. But, at the end of the day, it's both simple and simply challenging: you need a consistent diet that cuts out lots of things that you like to eat and drink. Everything else helps only on the margins.
Politics isn't all that different. To win, it's important to have a strong candidate and a well-funded and well-organized campaign. But, the political environment has a disproportionate impact on a campaign's success. In a year where the environment is relatively neutral, the specific candidates matter more. But, in a year like this one, where more than 70 percent of Americans think the country in on the wrong track, where inflation is at a 30-40 year high, and where a stubbornly strong virus continues to wreak havoc on our health and the global economy, the environment is anything but neutral. Democrats, who are the party in power at this moment, are going to get the blame. It's not that complicated.
This isn't to say that candidates and campaigns don't matter. The Democratic incumbents up this year are no strangers to close races under less-than-ideal circumstances. In 2016, then-Democratic candidate Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire) knocked off a Republican incumbent in a state that Hillary Clinton barely won. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet first won his seat in 2010, a terrible year for his party. Freshman Senators Mark Kelly in Arizona and Raphael Warnock in Georgia out-performed (narrowly) Biden in their first-ever races for Congress. In other words, these candidates have never known of a time when they had a strong wind at their backs.
But, the bigger question today is whether the headwinds will be too formidable for even the strongest Democrat to overcome. While Hassan, Bennet, Kelly and Warnock all outperformed Biden in 2020 or Clinton in 2016, they did so by just one to two points. For example, Mark Kelly took 51 percent of the vote in 2020, two points more than Biden's 49 percent showing. Today, however, Biden's job approval rating in the state is an anemic 40 percent. To win here, Kelly would need to outrun Biden's ratings by 10 points.
Given these challenges for Democrats, one GOP strategist said to me the other day, "Even our candidates can't screw this up."
Democrats, of course, are hoping otherwise. And, on paper, it's easy to see the weaknesses of some of these GOP contenders. Investigative reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of Republican Herschel Walker's businesses uncovered a "string of defaults, settlements and lawsuits alleging that Walker and his businesses owed millions of dollars in unpaid loans." An AP review of "hundreds of pages of public records tied to Walker's business ventures and his divorce, including many not previously reported …. detail accusations that Walker repeatedly threatened his ex-wife's life, exaggerated claims of financial success and alarmed business associates with unpredictable behavior."
In Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz (who is taking a narrow 900 vote lead into a primary election recount), has carpetbagging issues (he just moved to the state in 2020), and has been criticized by other medical professionals for controversial or questionable medical advice he dispensed on his TV show.
Both men also have the approval and endorsement of Donald Trump, who remains an unpopular figure in both states.
So, are these liabilities enough to disqualify these candidates with swing voters?
"Why am I concerned," said one white male swing voter in a recent focus group when asked about his feelings on the state of the country. "Shit, where do I start man?" This voter isn’t an outlier. In every focus group I’ve sat in on this year, voters across the political spectrum describe the state of the country in pessimistic terms. Voters are frustrated about high gas and food prices, and worry that what's coming around the corner will be worse. These existential concerns overshadow everything else and make controversial statements or behaviors of a candidate seem less salient than ever.
Take a look at Wisconsin, where incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson is running for re-election. Johnson is no stranger to controversial and unpopular positions on everything from COVID vaccines to the attacks of January 6th, to climate change. But, ads attacking Johnson from Majority Forward, a Democratic SuperPAC, focus exclusively on bread and butter issues. The most recent ad featured a person pushing a cart through the grocery store. "In Wisconsin, everything has gotten so expensive," the narrator says, "because America is too dependent on China." The ad goes on to argue that Johnson has been weak on "cracking down on China" and has been "making it easier on China and tougher on us." Another ad, run by the Democratic group Opportunity Wisconsin, takes place in a similar location (a grocery store) and takes a similar angle, arguing that "Ron Johnson should be helping families like us, but he seems to have helped himself…through a special tax loophole that benefited his own family's business. Then he cashed out of the company for $5 million. He's doubled his wealth since taking office." The goal of these ads: to make Johnson look out of touch, not on vaccines or climate, but on the most important issue to voters this year: the rising cost of living. Expect to see ads that frame Republican candidates in similar ways in other key battleground states.
Incumbent Democrats up this year are a battle-tested bunch. None have had an "easy" race, and none of them expected one this cycle. But, they've also never had to run in an environment as ugly as this one, where even a flawed opponent isn't enough to turn the tide.
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