The candidate quality argument

Source: Hot Air

A consensus is coalescing around the “candidate quality” explanation for a number of losses in Tuesday’s election.

The case is simple, easy to understand, and explains quite a lot. Why did Herschel Walker not win when Brian Kemp did? Candidate quality.

Why not Bolduc over Hassan? Quality. Why is Kari Lake having such trouble dispatching the least competent and inspiring candidate for governor in this election cycle, Katie Hobbs? Candidate quality.

There is no doubt that close association with Donald Trump in high profile races did not correlate with great results. Even in races that were or eventually may be won–Lake in Arizona, for instance–candidates chosen based upon their allegiance to Trump underperformed. This is described by most by the term “candidate quality” as a proxy for Trump adjacency.

My friend Jason Lewis has a different take, and wrote about in The Daily Caller this morning. He makes some compelling arguments, although I actually don’t really buy his conclusions. Despite this, I think he deserves a hearing.

Long before the votes were tallied on Tuesday night, the establishment went to work on the disappearing red wave. Mitch McConnell’s self-serving warning that “candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome” had long been forgotten in a wave of pollyannish polling. Once the Republican sweep failed to materialize, it was resurrected in a New York minute.

Washington Post columnist and Fox News analyst Marc Thiessen even blamed the victorious J.D. Vance in Ohio for sucking Mitch’s money out of other races. He didn’t mention that the Senate Leadership Fund had abandoned Arizona for Alaska to prop up McConnell backer Lisa Murkowski.

On that second point Lewis is correct. As much as we chastise Trump for prioritizing fealty over competence, the same could be argued about McConnell. I am not on the “behead McConnell” bandwagon; he has delivered some major victories in the past, particularly on Supreme Court seats. He has also been very disappointing at times, using his brilliance at using the rules of the Senate to deliver disappointing results. And it is easy to question his choice of places to invest resources in elections.

Clearly a few more dollars in some key races could have made the difference, and fewer dollars in seats that Republicans should win anyway were wasted. McConnell is a man of the Senate, which means he will always disappoint. The Senate exists to moderate both ideology and the pace of change, and no matter who is in charge they will disappoint. McConnell often does, and we will argue about possible electoral missteps for a long time to come.

These MAGA-candidates underperformed and by inference, former President Donald Trump continues to drag down the ticket. It’s a facile explanation, considering the GOP continued its gains from 2020 and will take the House and perhaps the Senate in 2022. The anti-Trump pundits point to the gap between establishment Republican gubernatorial officeholders, like Ohio’s Mike DeWine who cruised to victory, and the MAGA candidates who trailed behind.

But not only was Vance’s race called early, the Trump-endorsed newcomer won by a wider than expected margin with over 53% of the vote. Not that far off Rob Portman’s 56.8% in his first bid. As in every election, there were a few duds like Mastriano in Pennsylvania or Bolduc in New Hampshire, but the idea that Blake Masters, Kari Lake, Tudor Dixon and Tiffany Smiley were “bad” candidates is absurd.

I disagree with Jason’s first point and half agree with his second. I think there is no question that in races that should have been won easily, being closely associated with Donald Trump was a drag on performance. It is foolish for us to ignore that vast, vast elements of the electorate who were angry–not just disappointed, but actually angry–at Biden and the Democrats nevertheless voted for Democrats over Republicans.

That is unprecedented. It just doesn’t happen. That is why everybody, including the Democrats, was shocked by the returns as they trickled in. Nobody could believe it. And far from being especially wrong, the polls were actually pretty good this year, compared to earlier ones. Republicans did indeed win the popular vote by the margin predicted in the polls. Races such as Lake vs. Hobbs were predicted to be razor close, and turned out to be. Fetterman vs Oz closely reflected the polls.

The Red Mirage was not proof that the polls were wildly off–it was more due to everybody doing a mental correction for the polling errors of the past. While imperfect, most results were within the margin of error.

As for candidate quality itself–both Lake and Dixon surprised people by being very good candidates, but also proved to be too weighed down by appearing more extreme than the electorate wanted. Both were smart, articulate, energizing, and much more conservative than the electorate in purple states. While not bad candidates per se, they were bad reflections of the electorate.

That cost votes.

Besides, comparing more parochial gubernatorial races with nationalized Senate contests where unprecedented levels of campaign spending is far more determinative is a fool’s errand. After all, there was little daylight between DeSantis’s impressive victory and that of Marco Rubio.

But unlike some of the other failed candidates thrown under the establishment’s bus, they had the two things that Tuesday’s elections were really about regardless of party — incumbency and money. DeSantis outraised the hapless Charlie Crist and Rubio, though outraised, amassed $45 million.

The reason the Senate Leadership Fund played heavily in places like Ohio was purely transactional. Historically, it was one of the best places where a GOP challenger could win. It shouldn’t have meant leaving other Republican candidates locked in tough races withering on the vine.

On this point Lewis is correct. Money does not guarantee success, but lack of it nearly always guarantees failure. If you are unable to make your case–and the MSM is going to do everything they can to define a Republican as extreme and dangerous–Republicans will lose competitive races.

On the other hand, you can argue that money follows electoral viability. When money is being dispensed from above instead of organically raised–and in this day and age that is a huge amount of money and can easily determine elections–the judgment of viability is made from above. This does point back to the possibility that those decisions were made based upon fealty to the people dispensing the dough, and let’s face it, that is how things work.

But were the decisions bad or indefensible? Lewis thinks so, and I am agnostic. I don’t have the information that McConnell and company had and never will. Were they rejecting MAGA because it would be inconvenient for their power, or were they doing triage and putting resources where they could help the most? I don’t know and only they do.

In an era dominated by outside money, the lack of support quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And no amount of candidate “cold-calls” can come close to matching kingmakers like the Congressional Leadership Fund that would prefer to play in safer House districts where they can rack up a better won-loss record for the next cycle.

That way, the “swamp” never loses elections — only bad candidates do. Despite the fact it was the highly paid consultancy class who charged top dollar for the errant polls (once again) and advised Republicans to keep their ammo dry, avoid controversial issues and ride a red wave that never came.

Lewis, a former Congressman and US Senate candidate knows better than most how these decisions are made, and I have to agree with the first point entirely. Jason definitely had a shot when he ran against incumbent Senator Tina Smith. As an incumbent she had an advantage, but she is actually a relative unknown in the state unlike her seat mate Amy Klobuchar. She was originally appointed by Governor Mark Dayton, and while she did win a special election in 2018, it was more due to running in a good year for Democrats than her own skill and charisma. She is as charismatic as cardboard. She won because she had a good year and a well oiled Democrat machine behind her.

If Lewis had more resources he might have won. It was frustrating to watch the powers-that-be abandon the race.

As for the “swamp,” it is real and it is pernicious. Enough said. But they do like being in the majority so they wouldn’t abandon a good candidate who could pick up a seat unless they either really hated him or they judged his race, rightly or wrongly, unwinnable.

The outcome of this election cycle, like the last, was determined by early voting (now forever described as any ballot cast before a debate that includes John Fetterman) and mail-in ballots — the kind co-chairs Jimmy Carter and James Baker III cautioned against in the 2005 “Building Confidence in U.S. Elections” report.

Yet, according to those now complaining the loudest about “candidate quality,” election reform remains the issue that dare not speak its name.

Again, I cannot fault his point at all. Election reform would make a world of difference, even assuming there is never any fraud in our elections. Our current system of elections both undermines faith in their legitimacy and genuinely makes them unfair, even when totally clean. The deck is stacked in favor of machine politics where indifferent “voters” allow their ballots to be harvested. They are not expressing a considered judgment, but merely handing over a piece of paper to a Democrat marked as they are told.

If you are indifferent to the outcome and have no considered opinions, you normally wouldn’t take the effort to vote, and shouldn’t. Making decisions on important matters deserves attention, not indifference. Democrats love this system, but it harms not only Republican prospects by the fate of the Republic.

So on points Jason Lewis wins the argument. I agree with most of what he says, but can’t get past the second line of attack: many MAGA candidates were actually very competent campaigners, but a lot of persuadable people didn’t want to buy their message. I would vote for Kari Lake enthusiastically, but a lot of Independents chose not to.

They probably would have voted for a different Republican, so in that sense “candidate quality” mattered.

Quality is probably not the best word to use, because it implies something not in evidence: incompetence as a campaigner. Lake and Tudor were amazing candidates. Really superb. But they couldn’t sell an icebox to an Eskimo because the Eskimo was never going to buy it no matter the pitch.

The issue here is candidates matching the electorate. The problem isn’t that conservatives can’t win over Independents even in purple states, but there is a limit to how conservative they can be. Many of these candidates exceeded that limit, or were too tied to the Bad Orange Man for Independents to swallow.

That is how I see it. Lewis has a different take and you should read his entire essay and judge for yourself.