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The GOP’s last ‘candidate quality’ test- POLITICO


ELECTION NIGHT — POLITICO’s got you covered on the last primary day of the season with live results pages for New Hampshire and Rhode Island. (We won’t be watching Delaware, where only one statewide race — for auditor — is contested.)

Republican Senate candidate Don Bolduc greets supporters at a town hall event on Sept. 10, 2022 in Laconia, N.H. | Scott Eisen/Getty Images

QUALITY CONTROL — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made headlines last month when he threw cold water on his party’s chances of flipping the Senate, citing “candidate quality” as an obstacle to winning back the majority.

It’s become a midterm buzzword — a shorthand used by elected officials and political operatives alike when describing candidates who may be too flawed or too extreme to win. In other words, candidates with serious electability issues.

At the moment, it’s perhaps the GOP’s most serious stumbling block this fall as the party enters the homestretch of the Senate election campaign with a handful of first-time candidates who have struggled with some of the basics of running for office, whether it’s stringing together coherent thoughts on policy, raising enough money to compete or embracing positions that are acceptable to the mainstream.

You’ll be hearing a lot more about it tonight as the nation’s last primaries unfold. If retired Army General Don Bolduc — who has championed Donald Trump’s 2020 election conspiracies and referred to GOP Gov. Chris Sununu as a “Chinese communist sympathizer” — is victorious in New Hampshire’s GOP Senate primary against state Senate President Chuck Morse, he’ll be added to the list of candidates viewed as a threat to Republicans’ chances of a once-reachable Senate majority.

To break down what the term really means and how to watch these contenders in the final weeks of the fall campaign, Nightly chatted with POLITICO’s Natalie Allison, who covers Senate campaigns.

What are people talking about when they say “candidate quality”?

The term — which refers to how strong of a candidate someone will be in a general election — was notably used by McConnell last month as he tried to temper expectations about how Republicans might perform this fall, suggesting the party’s slate of Senate candidates left something to be desired. (Much ink has been spilled, including by this publication, on how they got there.) The conventional thinking by consultants this cycle is that candidates who are prone to embarrassing gaffes, who lack any experience in politics or, in some cases, who have major scandals in their past, are going to be a liability for Republicans in the general election. The names most associated with “candidate quality” concerns this year are Herschel Walker, Mehmet Oz, Blake Masters, J.D. Vance and, if he emerges tonight as the nominee in New Hampshire, Don Bolduc. With the exception of Bolduc, all are first-time candidates with extensive oppo research books on them.

Have we seen a cycle like this before, where the type of candidates threatened a party’s prospects? 

2010 and 2012 are the election cycles strategists point to when talking about why candidate quality matters. Despite a massive red wave in 2010 when Republicans took back the House, they still didn’t manage to win the Senate. In multiple cases, Tea Party candidates won GOP primaries in competitive states, but cost the party those seats in the general. Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell beat out a former governor in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary, only to be mocked by both parties throughout the fall and lose the election. The Senate race in Nevada that year was also seen as a prime pickup opportunity for the GOP, but Sharron Angle beat out a much more establishment candidate in the primary, and lost the race [to Sen. Harry Reid] following a pretty dysfunctional campaign. In 2012, Republican Todd Akin was leading the polls until he said there were legitimate forms of rape. Republicans then lost the Missouri Senate race, a seat they had been confident in flipping.

So why does candidate quality matter so much this year, and how important do your sources see candidate quality when compared with other headwinds Republicans face in the run-up to November?

The Missouri Republican primary was a clear example of the GOP panic about candidate quality. Republican money poured in during the final weeks to stop former Gov. Eric Greitens from winning the nomination. In that case, there were multiple polls showing Greitens losing or coming close to losing a general election. But for the most part this cycle, there isn’t a lot of solid data to prove that Republicans would be faring better with a different set of candidates on the ballot. Pre-primary polling in Arizona, for example, showed Blake Masters and Jim Lamon performing about the same in an hypothetical matchup against Sen. Mark Kelly. And when it comes to tonight’s New Hampshire race, I’ve still not seen polling that shows the establishment candidate, Chuck Morse, performing better in the general than Don Bolduc. But plenty of GOP operatives insist that Democrats’ approval issues this year are enough to cover a multitude of Republican missteps. In Georgia, Herschel Walker has been running neck-and-neck with Raphael Warnock, despite ads on the air about him abusing his ex-wife and lying about all facets of his life.

Do these candidates tell us anything about the state of the Republican Party, and what we should expect to see in future elections? 

Most of the Republicans on the ballot in competitive Senate races this fall got there because of their loyalty to Trump. We can debate how crucial Trump’s endorsement was for each of them to clinch the nomination, but it’s pretty clear none were going to survive a GOP primary this year by distancing themselves from him. So, to no one’s surprise, the slate of Republican candidates running in major Senate contests in 2022 (with the exception of Joe O’Dea in Colorado) are Trump loyalists, and some are still attending rallies with him. I don’t know if that tells us much about future elections, though. These same candidates are also out there campaigning with some of Trump’s possible 2024 presidential primary opponents, chiefly Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, so the Trump effect in 2024 Senate primaries could be much different.

When it comes to these candidates, what are you watching for in the final weeks of the fall campaign?

How they’re going to answer more questions that will arise about abortion and their policy positions on it. Today, we saw several campaigns dodge answering questions from our Congress team about whether their candidate would support Sen. Lindsey Graham’s new abortion ban bill. Regardless of how important abortion will prove to be in driving turnout, Republicans in these tight races know they can’t afford to say the wrong thing and piss off women in the weeks leading up to Election Day (such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who — during a debate for Indiana Senate in 2012 — said pregnancies that result from rape are what God intended to happen). And besides, many of them have spent the last several weeks trying to moderate their anti-abortion comments from the primary — and seeking to assure general-election voters they aren’t interested in a nationwide ban.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected] or on Twitter @MyahWard.

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SOFT NUMBERS — For the latest edition of Nightly’s occasional opinion section, we partially “unrolled” and edited for clarity a Twitter thread from Jason Furman, economic policy professor at Harvard and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, who broke down today’s inflation data and what it means:

“The CPI report is not pretty. The headline is fine (0.1% CPI for Aug or a 1.4% annual rate in that month, with prices up 8.3% over the last year). But the problem is excluding volatile food and energy the numbers look ugly (0.6% for Aug or a 7.0% annual rate).

A graph showing core CPI inflation over time.

“My interpretation: a lot of things that were supposed to bring down inflation have happened. To the degree energy prices passed into the core we should be seeing the reverse now (I was and am skeptical of magnitude). The labor force is returning. Goods prices [are] moderating. But [this strategy is] not working.

“In sum, the Core CPI is running ~4.5pp above the Fed’s target (note the Fed actually targets another measure). Some of this is probably quirks and is transitory, but it’s hard to escape some concept of underlying inflation running about 2.5pp above the Fed’s target. Soft landing odds are down a little.”

In plain English, Furman is saying that recent Federal Reserve measures to bring down inflation have worked somewhat, but they have not been entirely successful. This means that the Fed will need to take further actions to bring down inflation more, which could jeopardize the possibility of a “soft landing,” or the U.S. getting inflation under control without launching into a recession.

— First U.S. death from monkeypox confirmed in Los Angeles County: The U.S. reported its first death caused by monkeypox, according to an announcement from the Los Angeles County Public Health Department. The resident “was severely immunocompromised and had been hospitalized,” the department said Monday, adding that others who are severely immunocompromised and suspect they have monkeypox should seek medical treatment.

A video of Sen. Lindsey Graham speaking.

New Window

— Graham’s abortion ban stuns Senate GOP: Lindsey Graham’s anti-abortion legislation once unified the Republican Party. The 15-week abortion ban he pitched today had the exact opposite effect. Republican senators including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and McConnell all appeared perplexed by the decision to introduce the abortion ban in the midst of a midterm environment where Democrats have relied on the issue to turn around their electoral prospects.

— Twitter whistleblower to Congress: Your data is at risk too: Twitter’s protection of users’ sensitive data is so lax that just about anyone with an account has reason to fear for the security of their accounts — even members of the Senate, the company’s former chief security officer told lawmakers today. It’s “not far-fetched to say that employees inside the company could take over the accounts of all of the senators in this room,” Peiter “Mudge” Zatko testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee during the latest in a long round of hearings focused on Silicon Valley’s alleged failings.

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A photo of Armenians fleeing territory carrying seats in 2020.

Armenians strip out the seating from a theater as they flee territories in Nagorno-Karabakh handed over to Azerbaijan in 2020. This week, new tensions in the disputed areas have erupted again. | Alex McBride/Getty Images

FLARE UP — New clashes erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia early today in a conflagration that presents Russian President Vladimir Putin with yet another major strategic headache, writes Camille Gijs.

Moscow is being asked to step in to stabilize this serious flare-up in the Caucasus just as Putin has been thrown onto the back foot by an unexpectedly successful counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces. Armenia looks to Moscow as the main ally that can guarantee its precarious security, while Turkey is the key supporter of Azerbaijan.

According to local reports, Azeri shelling was reported in Armenian towns such as Jermuk and Goris.

Armenia said about 50 people had been killed on its side, while it’s unclear how many died on the Azeri side. The countries blamed each other for escalating the attacks. Significantly, the assault was outside the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh — an Armenian-controlled enclave internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan — which has been the source of tension for decades.

Welcome to ‘Radar Sweep,’ a new section from POLITICO Nightly that will track down notions from corners of the internet that might not make daily headlines. 

UNABOMBER-PILLED — If you’re of a certain age, you might remember the name Ted Kaczynski and shudder. The math teacher-turned domestic terrorist known as the Unabomber killed three people before he was eventually arrested by the FBI. For the younger set, though, his 1995 manifesto about industrialization and technology has plenty of semi-ironic online fans, who engage with his work mostly through memes about it. Rosie Gray reports on this strange internet subculture for UnHerd.

A photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer today to celebrate the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, at a packed event on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. | AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

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