Why we’re getting the bad candidates we deserve
Burgat is director of the legislative affairs program and an assistant professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.
A few short months ago, Republicans were rightfully confident they’d take back the House and Senate. They had both history and politics on their side. There was an aging, unpopular president who Republicans said needed to be investigated, a potential recession on the horizon, and a host of Senate elections in states where the GOP should have a clear partisan advantage.
And yet, even as independents are breaking toward Republicans in the final weeks, most election prognosticators have Democrats holding onto the upper chamber. Why?
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a pretty convincing explanation in August: objectively bad candidates.
McConnell wasn’t talking about his party’s nominees’ stances on the issues; the candidates all have pretty standard Republican positions. What he meant was that too many GOP candidates — particularly for the Senate — were so electorally and morally loathsome that they would have to win in spite of who they are, not because of it.
The most glaring example of this problem is Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker.
Walker said he doesn’t support abortion in any situation. Unfortunately for him, an old girlfriend came forward to credibly accuse him of paying for their abortion. Just as unfortunate, after Walker claimed he didn’t know who this woman could be, she revealed that she was actually the mother of one of his four children, which prompted Walker to still claim for more than a day that he still didn’t know who this woman was. The whole episode underscored Walker’s penchant for lying.
But Walker isn’t the GOP’s only problem. Senate candidates in Ohio, Arizona and Pennsylvania have all jeopardized what should be a banner year for Republicans.
Unless you’re McConnell, that shouldn’t matter too much to you. What should matter, I think, is how predictable it has become that members of a political party will circle the partisan wagons behind a candidate they all know isn’t morally worthy of the seat.
Republicans will admit it privately, but publicly they all support tarnished candidates no matter how indefensible his or her actions or statements.
We saw it back in 2018 with Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, when he was credibly accused of child molestation. And, of course, in 2016 with Donald Trump (you pick the transgression). Candidates are exposed for something that should disqualify them, and parties just rally behind them, work to minimize the fallout, and try to convince voters it isn't true or doesn’t matter despite how disingenuous they look in doing so.
Why are parties and their leaders so willing to contort themselves into convoluted, unintelligible defenses that run diametrically opposed to their party’s message? Why are they so unwilling to admit that some candidates' character deficiencies simply don’t deserve the party’s support, no matter if it costs them a vital seat?
The overriding answer is depressingly simple: Parties are confident partisanship will win out. In their eyes, there’s no credible threat of mass voter defection. They don’t fear that you — or really enough of you — will have a red line on candidate quality that you won’t cross when it comes down to it. And they definitely don’t worry about you crossing party lines and voting against them.
Sure, some of you may sit out, unable or unwilling to support a certain candidate because of their moral transgressions. This was the case with Cal Cunningham, the North Carolina Democrat who lost a very winnable Senate race largely because of an exposed text message affair. But in general, the parties — particularly the Republicans — have decided that the vast majority of us will plug our nose and vote for a knowingly unworthy candidate rather than ever cast a ballot for the other side.
Political scientists call this “negative partisanship” — a phenomenon where many of us are motivated more by preventing the other party from winning than we are in support of our preferred candidate. Your grandma just called it “cutting off your nose despite your face.”
For parties and their aligned media outlets, the devil they know — their partisan candidate — is better than the devil from the other team. At least their devil will vote with them once in office. And they’re convinced you’ll similarly motivate your reasoning. Parties know if they give you the right talking points and have their surrogates spout them enough times — even if those talking points change day to day — you’ll convince yourself that the candidate isn’t really that bad ... that any stories saying so is just another political hit job ... that the other side has just as many skeletons in its closet. Probably a combination of all three.
When parties and leaders choose political expediency over character, they are showing us they don’t really believe candidates matter. They can put any candidate up for any race — warts and all — and so long as they have the right letter next to their name, they will prevail and the party will be better off. They’re betting it’s all about the party label and the individuals are interchangeable.
Sometimes they lose that bet — like with Moore — but more often they’re proven right. Although voters may have to grit their teeth on some candidates, more often than not, voter partisan loyalties are more determinative than any character litmus tests.
Would voters and parties prefer upstanding, experienced, well-spoken, scandal-free candidates? Of course. Good candidates make everyone’s job easier. They don’t distract from the party’s goal to speak with one voice and don’t force their teammates to constantly defend their copartisan’s indefensible actions. But parties have proven time and again that character is not a job requirement.
The real irony is, in a lot of these cases, these seats are both incredibly important and incredibly winnable if not for these bad candidates. In other words, the party can lose so many of these seats — and majority control of Congress with them — only if they put up such objectionable nominees.
Perhaps the most revealing takeaway here, though, isn’t that Republicans may not win enough seats despite an extremely favorable political climate. Rather, it’s that these races — despite poor candidate quality — are still as close as they are.
Think about it this way: Herschel Walker has had literally months of stories catching him in the most hypocritical lies imaginable on one of his party’s most sacred campaign tenets — pro-life policies. His race is still rated as a tossup.
How we respond to clearly undeserving candidates has huge implications on the next slate of candidates and, ultimately, the quality of our legislature itself. Every time we are blindly led by our partisanship, it makes it just a little bit easier for the party to convince us to not believe our eyes and ears. Our unquestioned partisanship emboldens them. Plus, it does nothing to deter unprincipled, unethical candidates from entering the political arena in the first place. The definitions of acceptable candidate and elected official get stretched just a little bit further.
Perhaps just as important, there can’t be asymmetric enforcement of character litmus tests between parties. If one party ignores and defends its offenders while the other shuns them — as Democrats did with sitting lawmakers Al Franken and Katie Hill — there is effectively no incentive for either to play by the same rules. Voters and parties won’t continue to do the right thing if it only hurts their side.
Elections at any level, but particularly for the highest offices in the land, are fundamentally about character. The candidate’s character, yes, but also about our own. When we continue to back candidates we know aren’t worthy of the position they seek — no matter if they win — it says more about us than it does about them.
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