A month ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said out loud what many Republicans were undoubtedly feeling. Effectively, the message was: We’ve got a shot at a good 2022 midterm election, but some of these Trump candidates could screw it all up for us.
At the time, there was evidence of a GOP candidate problem — especially in the lagging poll numbers of some key Senate candidates.
Today, there’s considerably more.
An increase in public polling at the tail end of the primary season reinforces McConnell’s point — and not just in the races he and others might have had in mind. While it doesn’t count the GOP out of potentially winning the House and Senate and some key governor’s races, candidate popularity presents a significant and unnecessary hurdle in what should, historically speaking, be a good election for Republicans.
Where it’s perhaps most evident: when you look at the image ratings for the candidates — i.e. whether people view the candidate favorably or unfavorably.
The Washington Post reviewed more than 20 recent polls across the most competitive states in the 2020 presidential election, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And in most cases, the Trump-aligned candidates that observers have pegged as being potential liabilities in those states look like exactly that.
Oftentimes, the polls show voters in these states will be pretty evenly divided on which party they want in power when it’s presented as a generic choice — but then they’ll side with the specific, more popular Democrat.
Here are some big races where these popularity gaps could come into play in November.
The gap is perhaps most pronounced in Pennsylvania, where both GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano have trailed consistently in the polls.
Oz was broadly unpopular during the GOP primary, and he doesn’t appear to have improved his standing too much. In three recent polls — from Muhlenberg College, CBS/YouGov and Monmouth University — the percentage of people who viewed him unfavorably was double-digits higher than those who viewed him favorably. The Muhlenberg poll showed 29 percent of people liked him, while 53 percent disliked him. And the CBS/YouGov poll shows even 36 percent of Trump voters dislike him.
Oz’s opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), has middling approval numbers. But in each poll, Fetterman’s net favorability (i.e. positive views vs. negative ones) is more than 20 points higher than Oz’s, which helps explain Fetterman’s consistent edge in the race, which stands at around nine points in the FiveThirtyEight average.
The story is similar in the governor’s race, where Mastriano’s image ratings are about as bad as Oz’s; he’s also double-digits underwater in all three polls. (Monmouth, his best of the three polls, puts him at 36 percent favorable and 48 percent unfavorable.) And thanks to running against a Democrat who’s more popular than Fetterman, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Mastriano’s net image rating is consistently more than 30 points worse than his opponent.
Mastriano’s current average deficit is more than 10 points.
Perhaps the other two Senate races where this really comes into play are Ohio and Arizona.
Two recent polls show Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) with a net image rating 12 and 20 points better than Republican J.D. Vance. One of them — from Marist College — shows Democrats view Ryan by a favorably by a 76-point margin (79-3), but Republicans view Vance favorably by just a 45-point margin (58-13).
Ohio, unlike other states we’re focused on here, is increasingly a red state. But for these reasons, it’s looking like a headache for the GOP to win a race that should be in its column. The race is neck-and-neck.
In Arizona, there’s less quality public polling. But GOP nominee Blake Masters’s net favorability in a recent bipartisan AARP poll is minus-17 (37 percent favorable to 54 percent unfavorable), while Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is slightly popular. In both that and another poll, Masters’s net image rating is around 20 points worse than Kelly’s.
A McConnell-linked super PAC pulled out of the race this week, canceling $10 million in ad buys. Kelly leads by an average of 7.5 points.
Another nominee some have suggested could hurt the GOP is Kari Lake in the Arizona governor’s race. The evidence on that is less clear, and the race is polling tighter than the Senate race. But the same AARP poll showed Lake 10 points underwater (43 percent favorable to 53 percent unfavorable), while her opponent, Democrat Katie Hobbs, was slightly popular.
This popularity gap could also be important in a few other races.
One is the Michigan governor’s race, where Trump-backed Tudor Dixon was double-digits underwater in two recent polls — including an EPIC-MRA poll that pegged her favorable rating at just 24 percent and her unfavorable rating at 44 percent. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) remains popular, with a majority approving of her job performance. In both polls, her net image rating is 28 points better than Dixon’s, and she leads by double digits in the head-to-head matchup.
Another is the Wisconsin Senate race, where both a recent Siena College poll and a Marquette Law School poll showed fewer than 40 percent of voters like two-term incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’s (D) net image ratings are nine and 15 points better. But the race is very tight.
In the similarly tight Wisconsin governor’s race, Trump-endorsed GOP nominee Tim Michels is less popular than Gov. Tony Evers (D) by similar margins.
In the final two races we’ll spotlight, the gap is less pronounced — but still exists in a way that could matter.
Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker is consistently both underwater and less popular than Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), but the gap is usually between five and 10 points — which might help explain why he’s not underperforming as much as some of these other candidates, despite running a very uneven campaign. (Walker does lag behind GOP Gov. Brian Kemp’s performance in various polls, though. And the CBS/YouGov poll found a much larger gap in which candidate people like personally.)
And in New Hampshire, new GOP nominee Don Bolduc is 17 points underwater in a new University of New Hampshire poll (26 percent favorable to 43 percent unfavorable), compared to Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D-N.H.) minus-nine image rating. Hassan led in that poll by eight points and has led Bolduc in every poll.
One thing we’ve alluded to — and which you’ll notice if you dig into these polls — is that these popularity gaps are often bigger than the margins in the actual head-to-head matchups. And there’s one main reason for that: partisanship.
As The Post’s Philip Bump recently wrote, the CBS/YouGov poll showed Fetterman led Oz on several key issues when it comes to voters’ decisions, often by double digits. Yet Fetterman led by just five points on the ballot test. That’s because party often wins out on voters’ decisions.
Even more telling: The same pollster showed that, in both Pennsylvania and Georgia, a majority of people supporting the Democrat said they were doing so primarily because they liked their candidate. But 8 in 10 supporters of the Republican said their vote was primarily about supporting their party or voting against the other candidate.
That’s undoubtedly in part because those Republican candidates aren’t exactly setting the campaign trail on fire. But those numbers also show that how much voters like a particular candidate is hardly their only consideration at the ballot box — and often, nor is it the most important one.
Indeed, what these polls suggest is that if Republicans can win in these states — and by extension win the Senate — it’ll be in large part because of a favorable environment and the ever-present pull of partisanship.
And it will apparently be in spite of some of the candidates they’ve put forward.