On Tuesday, Republicans in New Hampshire faced a choice: Whom should they choose to compete against the vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Maggie Hassan, in the November election for the Senate? One option was Chuck Morse, the conservative, battle-tested state Senate president and the clear favorite of establishment Republicans. The other was Donald Bolduc, a retired army general with no prior experience in elected office, an inclination for culture warring, and a bizarre political agenda that ironically includes calling for the repeal of the 17th Amendment, which allowed for the direct election of senators.
In the campaign’s final weeks, Donald Trump uncharacteristically stayed on the sidelines, refusing to endorse either candidate, while the Republican establishment stepped in with millions of dollars to support Morse. Ultimately, however, these efforts to rescue Morse ended up being too little too late. Bolduc ended up squeaking out a victory over Morse and will now face Hassan in November.
From a purely strategic perspective, Bolduc was the wrong choice. His fringe agenda and apparent disinterest in appealing to swing voters give Democrats an edge in what could have been a proper toss-up election. Unfortunately for Republicans, Bolduc is just one of a number of terrible Senate nominees. In the most competitive Senate races—Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and now New Hampshire—Republican primary voters selected flawed candidates who represent the MAGA wing of the party. As Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell euphemistically put it, his party has a serious “candidate quality” problem.
The election is still almost two months away. Continued bad economic news, the favorable environment usually accorded the party out of power during midterm elections and other factors may work to pull even bad Republican candidates across the finish line and give the GOP control of the Senate. But right now, thanks in large part to this terrible slate of Republican Senate nominees, the Democrats are actually favored by statistical analysis firm FiveThirtyEight to hold the Senate in a year that was supposed to be a slam dunk for the GOP.
While Trump is partly at fault for the situation in which Republicans find themselves, the Republican establishment also is to blame. Historically, one of a political party’s primary responsibilities is to ensure that its candidates are electable. Party leaders and institutions usually do this by giving their preferred candidates money, endorsements and campaign support. But this year, the party establishment often ceded the field wherever Trump had made an endorsement. And when the establishment did intervene, those efforts were last-minute Hail Marys rather than well-planned and executed strategies.
Republican Party leaders are probably kicking themselves for this hands-off approach. There’s no doubt that McConnell, who said back in February that when it comes to his party’s nominees, “the only thing I care about is electability,” wishes the party had done more to draft and support high-quality candidates. Now, Senate Republicans have to get behind a hard-right political neophyte, an incoherent football star with secret children, a TV doctor, and two nationalist venture capitalists to succeed in the most competitive Senate contests.
A Possible Silver Lining
For a two-party democracy to work well, both parties need to choose competent and articulate mainstream candidates. But counterintuitively, there is reason to think that the GOP’s recent unforced errors may end up being a good thing for our politics: If Republicans don’t take control of the Senate, it would be a massive missed opportunity that could galvanize a reckoning within the party as Republican donors, leaders and voters demand accountability. And while there are sure to be excuses and claims of election fraud, there will be no way around the fact that Republicans’ fatal error was nominating candidates outside of the political mainstream. The party establishment would then face intense pressure to take a firmer hand in future primaries to support more electable and moderate candidates.
In practice, this would be a multi-front effort by the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and leaders like McConnell and Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn. First, they would have to recruit qualified candidates for 2024. Then they would need to offer them tangible support upfront in the form of endorsements, donations, advertisements and fundraisers.
This may sound like wishful thinking. The Republican Party taking a stand against extremism after its meekness throughout the Trump era? Not going to happen. But there are four reasons to think that defeat in November would prompt the party to change tactics.
First, there is a raw political calculus that ultimately governs all major political parties. For the past six years, Republican leaders have been reluctant to rein in the extremism within their ranks, in part because they often saw it as a good electoral strategy. If that changes and the Republican establishment starts to consistently see MAGA radicalism as an electoral albatross, the establishment will need to change course. A party can only self-immolate for so long before responding to electoral incentives. Doing otherwise would be the political equivalent of whistling past the graveyard.
Second, if Trump’s hand-picked candidates lose in November, it will be seen as a defeat for the former president and a blow to his image as kingmaker. Right now, Donald Trump has a firm hold over the GOP. Three-quarters of Republicans say they approve of the former president, and over 70% say they want him to run for reelection. But that continued support largely relies on Trump being able to avoid the politically destructive label of “loser” by claiming that Biden stole the 2020 election. If voters reject MAGA politics again in 2022, more and more Republicans will start to recognize that Trump is an electoral hindrance. That’s not to say he’ll disappear or lose popularity altogether, but his uncontested control over the party will be weakened and the party establishment will have room to reassert itself.
Third, there are recent precedents for party establishments stepping in to lead after disappointing election cycles. For example, after bruising Senate defeats in 2010 and 2012 because of extremist nominees, the Republican establishment decided to take a much firmer hand in 2014 to nominate electable candidates.
Fourth, a rift is already forming within the Republican ranks dividing those who remain unconditionally dedicated to Trumpism regardless of the electoral consequences and others willing to criticize such a strategy. In a particularly fiery exchange, Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, criticized McConnell for his statement about the poor quality of the party’s Senate candidates, writing in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner: “If you want to trash-talk our candidates to help the Democrats, pipe down. That’s not what leaders do.” There’s no telling how the intra-party feud will play out, but McConnell is one of the savviest political operatives, and if tensions escalate, he is where the smart money will be.
In a less chaotic world, a party establishment asserting firm control over its primary elections would not necessarily be a good thing—there are plenty of problems with political elites pulling the strings and having outsized influence in our democracy. But unfortunately, we are living in an era of polarization and extremism, with a Republican Party base that has made a habit of nominating candidates who are often explicitly illiberal and ambivalent about democracy. The cost-benefit analysis weighs clearly in favor of establishment intervention if it means sidelining such figures.
So while it is indeed concerning that Republicans have decided to nominate such extreme Senate candidates, there is a potential silver lining for the GOP if Democrats can pull off an electoral upset and hold the Senate. If that upset comes, it may serve as a wake-up call to the Republican establishment and embolden the forces of moderation within the party.