Republicans turn to establishment candidates after midterm failures

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Republicans are increasingly turning to more traditionally qualified candidates to fill out their 2024 roster, hoping to bounce back from a series of disappointing losses by populist insurgents in last year’s midterm elections.

Outsiders and inexperienced candidates steamrolled their way to the top of the GOP over the course of more than a decade, reflecting a sense of anti-establishment fervor among the party’s disaffected grassroots.

Now some Republicans believe that the era of the outsider may be coming to an end after a midterm election cycle that saw a spate of losses by untested, first-time candidates and broad success for GOP incumbents.

“The fact that no incumbent senator or governor was defeated in this midterm election makes me wonder if people are rallying back to the traditional definitions of candidates who have experience,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a veteran GOP operative and the executive director of the conservative South Carolina Policy Council.

Republicans have long grappled with the issue of candidate quality, but the handwringing has only intensified since last year’s midterm elections, when a roster of inexperienced populist candidates cost the GOP a chance at winning back the Senate majority and nearly blew the party’s effort to win control of the House.

In Georgia, for instance, former football star Herschel Walker lost to Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) after a campaign marked by a long stream of damaging personal revelations about Walker. Likewise, venture capitalist Blake Masters fell to Sen. Mark Kelly (D) in Arizona after emerging from a GOP primary field that included more experienced candidates.

Discussions about how to avoid a repeat of that scenario in 2024 have already begun. Just last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued an early endorsement of Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) in Indiana’s GOP Senate primary, a move that was seen as a preemptive effort to keep potentially unelectable candidates out of the race.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said that the party has struggled for years with the choice between electability and ideological purity in selecting its candidates at virtually every level of government. Whether Republicans are ready to reckon with that choice remains an open question, he said.

“This goes to that age-old question of electability,” Heye said. “We were told in previous cycles that electability was overrated and in some cases not even desired.”

“It’s an open question now of whether or not the Republican Party will learn the lesson that it should have learned time and time again over the last dozen years,” he added. “And there’s obviously a renewed focus on it after 2022.”

Even at the presidential level, there are signs that things may be changing.

When Republicans first nominated former President Trump for the White House in 2016, it was seen as the ultimate rejection of tradition. Now, however, battle-tested heavyweights like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) are gaining traction ahead of the 2024 presidential primaries.

Strategists say that figures like DeSantis or Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) have been successful with the GOP base because they understand the populist impulse that is driving the party’s tried-and-true voters, while still casting themselves as even-handed and experienced.

“You’ve got Trump populism and you’ve got non-Trump, personality-based populism. Those are the DeSantisses of the world,” said one Republican strategist.

Republicans like Trump, DeSantis and Youngkin have delved into the culture wars in their own ways. Youngkin and DeSantis, in particular, have zeroed in on cultural issues in the classroom, hitting back about what they say is a left-leaning agenda being pushed in schools and school districts.

“Whether you’re an outsider or an insider, you really have to gravitate and be able and willing to orbit around that moon, and the moon right now and the gravitational pull in our party is that populist pull,” the strategist continued.

But Youngkin and DeSantis are a part of a larger Republican club of current and former governors who are seen as future leaders of the party.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) is slated to launch her presidential campaign in the coming weeks, while former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) have not ruled out their own White House bids.

Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is widely expected to continue to play a leading role in the party going forward and is believed to be angling for a potential Senate run in 2026.

Many Republicans say their party’s governors are natural leaders for the GOP going forward given their executive experience and distance from the inner workings of Washington.

“A Republican governor can make a unique case against Biden that any other former or current elected official cannot do, which is what I’m doing in my state is working and what you’re doing in Washington is not,” an adviser to Kemp told The Hill.

“That’s one of the things I think we lost the opportunity on in 2016 was to articulate a positive, forward-looking message from a Republican governor and I think that ‘24 is hopefully going to be that year where someone is able to make that case,” the adviser added.

Of course, Republicans cautioned that while there may be a growing appetite for more traditionally qualified candidates, it may not be so easy to convince the GOP grassroots to ditch its long-held affinity for political newcomers and untested outsiders.

In most states, candidates only need to win a plurality of the vote to clinch a party’s nomination, and the GOP’s ultra-conservative base tends to play an outsized role in choosing candidates, because those voters are often the most likely to turnout for primary elections.

“If you keep nominating extreme candidates, can you win?” Heye asked. “We know that that answer is no, but there’s always that struggle of: Is Washington trying to pick and choose our candidates?”

“It’s hard because there are variables and every state doing it differently means it’s a bit hard to generalize,” he continued. “It’s a problem and it’s a problem that isn’t fixed yet.”

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