Here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine a family emergency requires you and your spouse to be out of town, and you have a couple of choices to babysit the kids while you are away.
One is an American vet, former senior government official, and very successful businessman. The alternative is admittedly a highly trained surgeon but one who, in recent years, has given a public platform to dubious diet and COVID-19 remedies, faith healers, and psychics who commune with the dead.
Or you have the choice between a successful rancher, community leader, and an incumbent senior state official and a former college and professional football player who admits he has had anger issues and psychological problems and has dissembled about his educational and professional resume and even the number of children he has fathered.
Doesn’t seem all that hard to make the correct choice, does it?
But it is, apparently, for Republican voters in Georgia and Pennsylvania picking a candidate for the Senate to run in November’s elections. Georgia Republicans selected political newbie Herschel Walker over Gary Black, the state agriculture commissioner for the past decade. And, in Pennsylvania, the GOP has nominated TV personality Mehmet Oz instead of David McCormick, a former undersecretary of the treasury. Obviously, a lot of folks think picking a babysitter requires more judgment about a person than picking a senator—but still.
More prosaically, it now appears unlikely Oz or Walker will win come November, if the polls are correct. The FiveThirtyEight running average has Oz’s opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, up by nearly 11 percentage points. The race in Georgia is closer but Democrat Raphael Warnock, who won a special election for one of the state’s two Senate seats in January 2021, is 3 points ahead of Walker, with the gap, it appears, gradually widening. While being a Georgia football legend has undoubtedly helped Walker keep the race close, his problematic personal and professional résumé will likely dampen key support from independents and traditional conservatives.
Before the party primaries chose their candidates, both the Georgia and Pennsylvania Senate races were seen as more than winnable for the GOP.
In Georgia, Warnock had beaten Republican Kelly Loeffler—who had been appointed to the seat after incumbent Sen. John Isakson had stepped down in 2019 for health reasons—but by just 2 percentage points. This was a seat that the Republican Isakson had won easily in 2016, beating his Democratic opponent by nearly 14 points. With a better candidate than the novice Loeffler and without the backdrop of Trump’s chaotic last days in office, Republicans should have had this race in the bag.
As for Pennsylvania, in 2016, Republican Pat Toomey won a second term as senator, with a margin of just a 1.5 points. In 2010, he had beaten his Democratic opponent by 2 points. Sensing perhaps were the GOP was headed, Toomey announced in October 2020 he would not be running for a third term.* Winning state-wide races in Pennsylvania is never easy for Republicans but it obviously can be done. Republican Arlen Specter was a senator from the state for three decades. Moreover, Pennsylvania seemed especially attainable with Biden’s dismal approval rating and Pennsylvanians dissatisfaction with the economy. Since Democrats nominated John Fetterman, a candidate with serious health questions and a progressive record that might worry independents and suburban voters, a Republican who is seen as qualified and sensible would have a good chance at taking the seat.
What should unsettle Republicans about these two races is that in the abstract they had a decent chance to gain a Senate majority in the midterms—with all the perks, public platforms, and authorities that go along with that. Sitting at 50 seats, all the Republicans have to do is hold on to their own seats and take one away from the Democrats. Yet with Toomey stepping down, and Oz likely to lose, the GOP number drops to 49; and should Walker also lose, the chances of Republicans retaking the Senate drop considerably.
The problems for Republicans are compounded by the fact that in two other tossup races—in Nevada and Ohio—the Republican candidates Adam Laxalt and J.D. Vance are both trailing. Vance’s race is particularly troubling in that the seat is now held by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. In short, the chances of Republicans taking the Senate appear to be slip, slip, slipping away.
Would that have been the case if the Republican candidates were not Oz and Walker? Difficult to know for sure but common sense suggests picking two amateur politicians has certainly not helped.
The picking is done of course through primaries. Georgia’s is an “open primary” where a voter can vote in the party contest of his or her choosing. In Pennsylvania, a “closed primary,” a voter must state their partisan affiliation when registering to vote. In both cases, however, the primary is intended to reflect the popularity of a candidate and, in theory, give the party a better chance of winning in the election come November. But does it?
Of course, as everyone knows, while the number of folks voting in state primaries is significant, it still pales in comparison with the general election totals. Oz collected just short of 420,000 votes in the Pennsylvania GOP primary. In the last Pennsylvania Senate election in 2018, Democrat Bob Casey won with close to 2.8 million votes, while the previous Senate race in a non-presidential election year in 2010 saw Pat Toomey collecting a little more than 2 million votes. Toomey had little opposition in either of his primary battles, winning 81.5 percent in the 2010 GOP primary and running unopposed in 2016. In both general elections, as noted above, however, he won by slim margins. Now imagine Oz, down in the polls already, having a chance—especially with the growing number of independents in Pennsylvania (now some 1.3 million).
Walker is in a relatively better position. His primary vote total was just above 800,000. Still, in 2021, Warnock received some 2,289,000 in his general election victory. Both Senate races in 2021, Warnock vs. Loeffler and Jon Ossoff vs. David Perdue were close, with Warnock winning by a 2 point margin and Ossoff squeezing by Perdue with a little over 1 percentage point. However, Walker’s primary total is no guarantee that his candidacy will play well with the independents who made up 28 percent of the electorate in 2020 and 25 percent in the 2021 special election and runoff. Georgia is no longer the reliable deep red state that it was just a few years ago when virtually any Republican candidate could count on winning.
The fact is, a primary vote gives you a base-line assessment of a candidate’s popularity but one that is, as primary after primary has shown, tied to each party’s base. Less ideological candidates—that is, candidates who might have more appeal to a broader swath of the public—can win primaries either by touting their electability, or, since primary electorates increasingly display little interest in that quality, posturing as just as ideologically committed as their opponents. And, just to be clear, none of these calculations have any relation to determining who might actually do a better job as a representative or senator.
Primaries were instituted more than a century ago to reform a system in which party officials controlled who the candidates were. More democracy would be the solution to the seemingly malign influence of party bosses. Gradually lost, however, was the notion that political elites may know something about what it takes to be an effective politician. It turns out that democracy, to work effectively, may need the tempering provided by less populist institutions and structures—even “smoke-filled back rooms.”
Turning the clock back, even only a quarter around the dial, doesn’t seem to be a realistic option. What current politician is willing to say we need less populist forms of governance? Moreover, today, the party elites, especially within the GOP ranks, are no less susceptible to the demands of the party’s base.
If there is some hope in breaking out of this cycle it may lie in employing ranked-choice voting in party primaries—a system in which primary voters rank their candidate choices from most to least favorite. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is cut and his or her voters’ second choices are given to the remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate has a majority. In theory, this will force candidates to appeal beyond winning simply a plurality of the already small primary electorate. Moreover, by forcing candidates to reach a majority, the outcomes are arguably more democratic than primaries where a plurality wins the party’s candidacy—a feature of most states’ primaries. And finally, a selection system using ranked-choice voting might well induce a broader array of individuals to run if they think the system is not so skewed in favor of candidates whose focus is almost exclusively on capturing the activist base.
To be sure, this is no cure-all for the deep polarization that now marks American politics. Nor does it guarantee that a problematic candidate won’t capture a majority straight out. Herschel Walker, after all, won his primary with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Nor is there one electoral system for picking candidates that can guarantee that the candidate will be both capable of winning in the general election and will be a competent legislator. The question is whether the current system is less likely to give us candidates who hit both marks, or whether there are other ways that come closer to doing so? The results in Pennsylvania and Georgia suggest we ought to think hard about whether the current system is the best we can do.
*Correction, August 18: This piece originally stated that Toomey announced his retirement after voting to impeach Donald Trump. He had announced it before the impeachment vote.
Gary Schmitt is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes on American institutions and national security issues.