Only a few short months ago, the Democratic Party looked to be doomed. Joe Biden’s approval rating was scraping historic lows in the mid-30s, Republicans were building a solid lead on the Generic Congressional Ballot, and story after story detailed how once-reliable Democratic constituencies — Hispanics, Asians, millennials — were abandoning the party in droves. As in the Seventies, the Democrats had become the party of inflation, urban lawlessness, foreign-policy weakness, and elite cultural radicalism, raising Republican hopes that the GOP could sweep Congress in 2022 on the way to presidential victory. Biden looked so dead in the water that The Atlantic began soliciting reader suggestions for Democrats who could replace him in 2024.
Well, that was then. Today — after the Dobbs decision in late June, a better-than-expected inflation report in July, recent Democratic victories in Congress, and a Republican primary season that has seen Trump-backed candidates edging out their more conventional rivals — the terrain is looking a lot more favourable for the Democrats. While the GOP is still expected to take the House in November, the Senate has become a gigantic question mark. As RealClearPolitics election analyst Sean Trende put it in June, what we are looking at now is “a classic battle between an irresistible force and an immovable object”. The irresistible force is Biden’s unpopularity; the immovable object is the fact that GOP primary voters have reliably opted for weak, unproven, and at times cartoonishly bad Senate candidates to run against Democrats. Faced with one of the most favourable electoral environments in decades, Republicans are finding a way to blow it.
Take Georgia, which, on paper, should be as reliably Republican as they come. Although immigration to the metro Atlanta area is steadily shifting the partisan balance in the state, Georgia went for Donald Trump by 5 points in 2016, and, until 2020, it had not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 2000. In the last election, however, college-educated suburban whites moved heavily into the Democratic column, granting a narrow victory to Biden and to two Democratic Senate candidates, Jon Ossof and Raphael Warnock. Still, most observers at the time attributed the blue wave to Trump’s personal unpopularity and predicted that Warnock would be one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate in 2022.
Georgia Republicans, however, selected as their challenger to Warnock the Trump-endorsed Herschel Walker. Walker is not a politician — he is a former college football star at the University of Georgia who played professionally for the New Jersey Generals, a Trump-owned team in a failed competitor league to the NFL. There was, to be fair, a certain logic behind the choice. College football is what white Southerners have today instead of a religious or regional identity. I come from a multigenerational Georgia family: I, my mother, my father, my brother, my grandfather, and the majority of my aunts, uncles, and cousins have all received degrees from the University of Georgia. Walker was a god in our household, and in many households across the state, for his leading role in winning the 1980 college football national championship, much in the way that Diego Maradona is still revered in Argentina for the 1986 World Cup. I can’t count on both hands the number of dogs named “Herschel” I have met in my life.
And yet, with all due respect to Walker, who has received countless blows to the head over his years as a football player and mixed-martial artist, he is likely among the dumbest men ever to run for Senate. Even to those jaded from watching Biden press conferences, his interviews are remarkable for their incoherence. When asked in March about gun violence, he answered: “Well, Cain killed Abel, you know, and that’s a problem that we have… You talked about doing a disinformation, what about getting a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women that’s looking at their social media?” He has cautioned against green energy investments on the theory that “when China gets our good air, their bad air gotta move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then, now, we’ve got to clean that back up.” Amazingly, these quotes sound even worse when you listen to them.
But even if Walker did not sound like President Camacho minus the showmanship, he would still be plagued by a string of scandals. He has admitted to struggling with dissociative identity disorder and of having up to 12 different personalities, or “alters”, including one that prompted him to play Russian roulette with a loaded pistol and another that nearly led him to murder a man for failing to deliver a car on time. His ex-wife has accused him of threatening her with knives and of holding a gun to her head, meaning that whoever wins the Georgia Senate seat will have faced domestic violence allegations from their former spouse. Indeed, it’s a testament to the strength of Republican feeling in Georgia that Walker is running only two points behind Warnock. It’s also telling that he’s polling a full five points behind Brian Kemp, the GOP candidate for Georgia governor.
Walker is the most colourful Republican seeking election to the Senate, but he’s not the only one with problems. Pennsylvania, for instance, should have been a decent opportunity for the GOP. The Democratic nominee, John Fetterman, is another one of those American politicians who can barely talk — he suffered a stroke in May and has rarely appeared in public since. For that and other reasons, he would appear to be a soft target. A radical from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, Fetterman attempts to project blue-collar authenticity (largely by wearing hoodies) but is in reality something more like a middle-class slummer. He received an MBA from the University of Connecticut and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard, and he subsisted into his 40s on the largesse of his parents, from whom he purchased an “industrial-style loft” for $1. He’s also got what, if he were a Republican, the media might call a “racially tinged” past. In 2013, Fetterman used a shotgun to detain an unarmed black jogger whom he (wrongly) suspected of criminal activity in his neighbourhood — behaviour that in other cases has been charged as the federal crime of kidnapping.
Fetterman’s Republican opponent, however, is Mehmet Oz, another Trump-backed political novice best known as the celebrity doctor from The Oprah Winfrey Show. While Oz, like all Republicans, has to deal with a hostile media, his big problem is that he’s been unable to shake the impression that he’s a wealthy carpetbagger with little organic connection to Pennsylvania. In a much-mocked video highlighted by the Fetterman campaign, Oz, who lived in New Jersey until recently, mispronounces the name of a Pennsylvania grocery chain before complaining that skyrocketing food prices are driving up the price of his wife’s “crudités”. And a recent attempt to attack Fetterman for sponging off of his parents ended up spiralling into a discussion about whether Oz owned ten homes or only two. (He clarified: two homes, ten properties.) With barely 12 weeks to go until the election, Fetterman has opened up a towering 11.5-point lead over his rival.
But the Senate map looks bad for the GOP across the board. In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly has opened up a double-digit lead on the Trump-and-Peter Thiel-backed Blake Masters, who has been hammered for past comments calling abortion “demonic”. That might’ve been Republican boilerplate a year ago — meaningless red meat for Evangelicals and Catholics — but in a post-Roe world, voters are jumpy about what GOP politicians might do to abortion access once in power. And the other Trump-and-Thiel candidate, Hillbilly Elegy author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, is struggling in Ohio. The state went decisively for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, which should be great news for Vance. But polling in that race, while sparse, has tended to show Vance narrowly behind in a close race, and his campaign has struggled to raise money. A Yale-educated populist whose real constituency is among D.C. intellectuals, Vance has had trouble connecting with Ohio voters. He still has a decent shot to pull it out, but Ohio shouldn’t even be close.
A friend who’s reported on American politics for decades once told me that parties take a few electoral cycles to get the message the electorate is trying to send them. Democrats weren’t convinced to abandon McGovern-style, tax-and-spend liberalism until after getting thumped in 1980, 1984, and 1988. Republicans held onto the Bush-era synthesis of religious family values and neoconservative foreign policy through the defeats of 2008 and 2012, abandoning it only after their base decisively rejected it in the 2016 primary.
A few months ago, it looked as if the Democrats might be the ones about to receive the message that their current flavour of elite-driven progressivism was out of step with the country. That outcome is still possible: Biden is only marginally less unpopular than he was earlier in the summer, and reports of his revival carry more than a whiff of wishful thinking. And the Senate map favours the GOP, even if the candidates are weak. Today, however, it’s starting to look as if the American electorate could be gearing up to deliver a very different sort of message. Trump was defeated in 2020. It seems increasingly likely that his hand-picked candidates could cost Republicans a Senate majority in 2022. And with each new report coming out of Mar-a-Lago, he inches closer to declaring his candidacy for 2024.
In a perfect world, it wouldn’t take yet another Trump defeat to convince the GOP to move past the man. But we’re not living in that world, so something tells me that it will.