It’s not so much the former president’s unpopularity — many Republicans are willing to trade the risk of turning off swing voters for the benefit of juicing the party’s base.
It’s about whom he’s campaigning for: Senate candidate Blake Masters, an uber-wealthy venture capitalist and disciple of democracy skeptic Peter Thiel, and gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor who bashes the media and has made false beliefs about a “stolen election” the centerpiece of her campaign.
Both are running in the state’s Aug. 2 primary, and Republicans in both D.C. and Arizona increasingly fear the duo could become the latest potentially unelectable candidates the GOP nominates in key states and races.
High inflation and widespread dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden — polls regularly show he is less popular than Trump was at this point in their terms — means the national political environment strongly favors Republicans, and the party is well positioned to win control of Congress in November. But across the country, the GOP is facing problems like Masters and Lake: far-right candidates, often with the backing of Trump, who could blow winnable races for the party.
“Republicans have the wind at their back, but they can’t corral their primary candidates and it’s going to cost them winnable seats,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist. “Who is going to be the Christine O’Donnell of this cycle?”
O’Donnell was the GOP’s 2010 nominee in Delaware’s Senate race. She defeated a moderate in a primary, blowing the Republican Party’s chance to secure the Senate seat that once belonged to Biden. (O’Donnell is perhaps most famous for a memorable ad opening: “I’m not a witch.”)
Already, Republicans have written off some chances to delve into blue-tinted territory: The selection of far-right gubernatorial candidates in Illinois, Minnesota and Maryland has essentially removed those races from the political playing board. But it’s problematic candidates in swing states who are keeping GOP strategists up at night.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and end the right to an abortion has only made the GOP’s extremism problem worse. The deeply unpopular decision is forcing the GOP to answer uncomfortable questions and creating a new avenue for Democratic attacks.
The problem exists up and down the ballot for Republicans, including with House candidates in Ohio and North Carolina swing districts. But it is most acute in the Senate, where Republicans need to pick up only one seat to gain control, and where North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Arizona are all likely to see tens of millions of dollars spent on intra-Republican battles.
“They’ve had such brutal primaries, been spending a fortune,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. “That means you’re going to have a flawed candidate who’s been weakened by a really tough primary, which puts us in a great place.”
Arizona’s Senate primary is a prime example. Strategists cringed when Masters endorsed privatizing Social Security during a recent debate. The Arizona electorate, chock-full of retirees, is among the oldest in the country and any changes to the country’s oldest social safety net program are political poison.
“I’m not going to receive Social Security. I’m a millennial,” Masters declared last month. “Maybe we should privatize Social Security. Private retirement accounts. Get the government out of it.”
But the other leading candidates have made similarly unpopular moves. Jim Lamon, a businessman who has put $14 million of his own money into the race, has also backed Social Security privatization. After the overturn of Roe v. Wade, Attorney General Mark Brnovich chose to ignore a 15-week abortion ban passed by the GOP-controlled state legislature and implemented a total ban dating back to when Arizona had yet to become a state.
“The word on the street is Masters doesn’t really listen to anybody. He’s his own Svengali,” said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran GOP consultant in Arizona. “Which is not unusual, right? You get a businessman running for office and he sort of dismisses all the political wisdom around him and runs his own deal.”
Masters’ problems begin with his far-right views and past writings, which include online posts from his relative youth denouncing the United States’ entry into World Wars I and II and “approvingly” quoting a Nazi war criminal, according to The New York Times. The Times reported that Masters’ campaign didn’t respond to his specific posts and blasted journalists who “[spend] their time sifting through CrossFit message boards from 2007 to try to discredit him.”
Masters didn’t respond to HuffPost’s request for comment for this piece.
But what has truly alarmed national Republicans is his apparent faith in his own views and desire to turn everything into a debate. One pointed to Masters’ decision to threaten a lawsuit against a local reporter who wrote a story about his stated desire to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court case guaranteeing a right to access contraceptives. The lawsuit ― based on Masters’ quibbling over the wording of a headline ― guaranteed additional coverage for an issue where he is decidedly on the wrong side of public opinion.
“There’s a fear that he just can’t stay on message,” said the national Republican strategist. “He just doubles and triples down. It means he’s always talking about his controversies instead of inflation or the border,” two issues where the GOP has major advantages.
The Senate problems go well beyond Arizona. Many Republican operatives are less than convinced by the candidacy, knowledge and inflated resume of Herschel Walker, the college football legend who won the party’s nomination in Georgia and is the subject of scores of embarrassing headlines. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon who narrowly won Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary, is deeply unpopular in public polling. The party is openly worried about the inflammatory campaign of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, the “RINO hunter” who has been accused of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
But there are splits in both parties. Some Democrats worry they’re tempting fate by quietly (and not so quietly) rooting for more extreme candidates. Some Republicans, emboldened by Trump’s ability to brush aside scandal in 2016, think unpopular positions and biographical baggage don’t matter much to voters anymore ― and that unconventional backgrounds can even help.
“They’re all pretty good candidates. They may be unconventional but they’re talented, they’re smart, they’re credentialed,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) about the party’s emerging slate of Senate candidates. “This election is going to be as much about the people they’re running against, and by that the party they’re running against as it will be about them.”
To that point, no one in the GOP is close to giving up on any of the Senate races. National Republican groups have nearly $102 million in television airtime reserved in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania alone for the fall.
What happened in Pennsylvania underscores the bumpy path Republicans find themselves on as they try to win the Senate. Oz and David McCormick, an investment banker, spent $75 million on ads appealing to conservative voters, while attacking each other and genuflecting to Trump.
In the end, Oz narrowly won and will face Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in November. Early polling on the race has not been friendly to the GOP. A survey conducted for the AARP in part by one of Trump’s own pollsters found Fetterman leading Oz among likely voters 50% to 44%. Oz’s favorability in the poll was an atrocious 30% favorable and 63% unfavorable.
Fetterman’s lead is solid despite Democratic weaknesses in the state: Biden’s approval rating is just 36%, with 61% disapproval, and Republicans lead the generic congressional ballot 47% to 45%.
Oz’s unpopularity can be traced back to the primary, where he backed away from his previously held liberal positions on social issues and embraced right-wing stances on issues like abortion rights and gun control. While it helped him win the primary, it runs counter to how Republicans have previously won in the Keystone State, which Biden narrowly flipped in 2020.
For example, when retiring Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey won reelection in 2016, he did so in part by breaking with his party and embracing background checks for gun sales, helping him win over voters in the Philadelphia suburbs. In 2022, Oz spent heavily on ads in the Philadelphia media market expressing his support for gun rights.
“Republicans spent the entire primary arguing about stuff regular voters do not care about at all,” said Leopold, a Pennsylvania native who has previously worked on Senate, governor and House races in the state. “None of it is going to appeal to business-friendly voters in Chester County.”
Republicans are confident Oz’s numbers will improve as he shakes off the dust of the primary and consolidates GOP support. But Fetterman has spent recent weeks relentlessly trolling Oz over his New Jersey residency.
Attempting to make individual candidates unelectable is more difficult further down the ballot, where races receive less media coverage and voting tends to fall more along party lines. That means a poor political environment is likely to hurt House and state legislative candidates more.
Still, Democrats working on House races are confident they can make candidates like Virginia Republican Yesli Vega, who has questioned whether a rape is less likely to lead to pregnancy, and MAGA rapper and Jan. 6 attendee J.R. Majewski, infamous enough to hurt their chances of picking up Democrat-held seats.
Majewski, who has espoused beliefs linked to QAnon but has tried to distance himself from the conspiracy movement, could blow up a shot for Republicans to pick up the seat of longtime Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, whose district is a toss-up after last year’s round of congressional redistricting.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.