Walker’s troubles are an extreme case, but he’s far from the only deeply flawed Republican candidate running for office this fall. In fact, from top to bottom of the poll, and across the country, from Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano to Arizona Senate hopeful Blake Masters to Michigan congressional candidate John Gibbs, Republicans have nominated candidates who were unvetted, inexperienced, or held extreme views.
Democrats have also backed weak candidates, including people who don’t ideologically match their constituencies. But there is simply nothing comparable on the Democratic side with what has become commonplace for Republicans.
It’s partly a problem of supply – quality candidates increasingly want nothing to do with the party, as news on Thursday of the expected resignation of Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse attested. . But that’s not the only problem.
So how did Republicans, who entered the midterm elections with a strong chance of retaking both the House and the Senate, end up with so many bad candidates?
One of the causes is a structural bias that ends up favoring bad candidates. In normal political parties, including Republicans until about the 1990s, most key players have overwhelming incentives to win elections. Politicians have their careers at stake, not just in their own election campaigns, but in those who share the party brand with them. Party-aligned interest groups usually care deeply about political goals that they can only achieve by winning elections; governance professionals want to be in government, not on the sidelines. Campaign professionals build their reputation by winning, not by losing.
But as Republicans have become dominated by party-aligned media — from Fox News to right-wing websites to conservative talk radio — voter incentive has eroded. The media itself has perverse incentives, because it thrives on having Democrats in power. Ratings are rising. More books are sold. While the conservative media probably doesn’t want Republicans to lose, they might be less motivated than mainstream political participants to see Republicans win.
Party activists and donors are normally torn between purist and pragmatist impulses; they are tempted by the idea of nominating the ideal candidate and likely to believe that most voters would really share their opinions if only they were expressed clearly enough. But they also care about winning elections and can sometimes put eligibility ahead of other goals. The Republican-aligned media, however, tends to demonize pragmatism. This is having an effect, as we can see when Walker raised more money than usual after the latest allegations emerged.(1)
This is tantamount to saying that there are fewer Republican party leaders who are heavily invested in winning elections. This has real consequences on who they appoint – and who they don’t avoid naming.
There is more. Consider the effect of the closed conservative information loop on the party and its voters. Within this bubble, it seems that Republicans are constantly being wrongfully accused of vile things by Democrats. In the real world, both sides have sometimes had scammers or miscreants. Once upon a time, both sides would admit it (eventually) and move on. Democrats mostly still do: Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, tried to recover from sexual harassment charges, but most Democrats simply ignore him.
But Republicans have become so good at shutting down outside information that it’s easy for them to ignore warning signs about someone like Walker — or, for that matter, someone like former President Donald Trump.
And that’s the last piece of the puzzle. Some Republicans, notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, had learned to defend themselves against terrible candidates after several debacles over the past decade.(2) But doing that requires a fairly united front of the leaders of left. Instead, the Republicans have Trump, a loose cannon not only willing to back anyone who promises him sufficient loyalty, but someone seemingly attracted to the most extreme candidates, who then become extremely risky candidates.
Once we reach this stage of a campaign, party leaders and voters also have a strong incentive to stick with their candidate no matter what, especially because under Georgian law it is too late. to replace Walker on the ballot if he dropped out. Republicans know that Walker will vote with the party if elected. Proponents and policy advocates pursue the least bad of the available options.
It’s also true that this week’s reveals take place against the backdrop of Walker’s other ugly personal story. He’s presumably already lost any voters who were disgusted by a candidate who allegedly pointed a gun at his ex-wife’s head or who didn’t like the idea of a senator who had multiple secret children.
This only underscores how important it is to get nominations right – because when a party makes a mistake, it often gets stuck. Sometimes very long term, with all sorts of negative consequences.
For weekend reading, here are some of the best recent articles from political scientists:
• Dan Drezner on reducing nuclear tensions.
• Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog on DACA.
• Matthew Green at Mischiefs of Faction on political platforms in House elections.
• Jennifer Victor, also at Mischiefs, on democratic backsliding.
• Robert Farley on the return to peace in Ukraine.
(1) Even governance professionals may care less about public policy-making in government than they once did, given the incentives created by Republican-aligned think tanks.
(2) Political junkies may recall examples of Senate seats that Republicans believed lost because the wrong candidate was nominated, including Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana in 2012 and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware in 2010.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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