Senate candidates might not be able to ride a red wave. Can they paddle their way to the majority?

Democrats’ special election victory in Alaska serves as a reminder that yes, candidates do matter.

Two key Republican leaders can’t agree on whether they have good or bad candidates running for Senate this November.

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?

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.

Usually partisanship rules all

For all the attention and drama that primaries stir up, they weren’t initially an American institution.

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.

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.

The exceptions to the rule

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.

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’ challenge in 2022

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.

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.

“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?”

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.”

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