Republican hopes of reclaiming the U.S. Senate this fall have run into a serious problem. Their nominated candidates have big-time “likability” issues.
In usually competitive Pennsylvania, where Democratic nominee John Fetterman holds a double-digit lead over Dr. Mehmet Oz in most polls, the GOP candidate’s net favorability rating is minus-20.
In Ohio, where only one Democratic candidate has managed to win a statewide race in 15 years, the Republican nominee JD Vance trails Democratic candidate Tim Ryan in nearly every poll. It’s likability here as well: Ryan’s net approval rating in the latest USA Today/Suffolk University poll is plus-20, while Vance’s is minus-1.
It’s a similar story in Arizona, where the GOP nominee, Blake Masters, also has a negative overall favorability number. These and other GOP candidates have put forward policies and positions that played well in their low-turnout Republican primaries, but now are too extreme to entice more independent voters in the November general election.
GOP leaders, who didn’t expect to be running from behind in so many states where they should be favored or breaking even, understand the problem. “Candidate quality has a lot to do with it,” admitted Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, earlier this month when asked about the party’s shrinking prospects.
Still, GOP leaders have been powerless to mold the wet clay they have into stronger general election candidates, or to prevent nominees from emerging deeply wounded from party primaries. They failed again last week in New Hampshire, even after national Republicans and allies spent almost $5 million in hopes of selecting a more moderate nominee for a toss-up seat that Democrats won six years ago by just 1,017 votes.
Instead, GOP primary voters selected Don Bolduc, a full-throated election denier who describes New Hampshire’s popular conservative GOP governor Chris Sununu as a “Chinese communist sympathizer.” (He is not, in case you are wondering). According to one poll this week, Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan has a 13 point lead.
Low plurality winners in low turnout elections
If Republicans want different outcomes, perhaps they need a different process. Republicans would stand a better chance of nominating appealing, likable candidates who can win statewide elections if they embraced a majoritarian method like ranked choice voting in their primaries.
Ranked choice voting gives voters the power to consider the entire field in order of preference. You rank your favorite candidate, then your next favorite, your third favorite, and so on. Then, if no candidate is the first choice of a 50 percent majority, an “instant runoff” ensues. This eliminates any need for future runoff elections, which cost more money and tend to have lower voter turnout. It helps build party unity when a majority of voters feel they had a say in selecting the nominee. It also ensures that the candidate with the deepest and widest support – therefore the best chance of prevailing in November – wins.
After all, one reason these candidates are struggling is because they did not need to be likable or appealing to win their primary—they just needed to be the most strident. All four candidates won GOP primaries without anything close to a majority. Masters won with 39 percent. Bolduc captured 37.6 percent. Vance earned just 32 percent, and Oz even less, just over 31 percent.
When somewhere between six and seven out of 10 voters in your own party prefer another nominee, something’s wrong. And when 31 percent can defeat 69 percent, it turns all the usual campaign “best practices” upside-down. Why bother reaching out to everyone, or signal your ability to reach independents in the general election, when rallying a small part of the most rabid base is enough to win?
RCV creates stronger and better positioned winners – nominees who know they have the support of a majority from their party, and can then pivot toward the general election. It helps with likability, as well, because studies show that RCV elections trend less negative and accusatory, as candidates need to appeal for second-choice votes.
Many Republicans who want to win winnable races have already embraced RCV. Virginia Republicans used ranked choice voting in May 2021 to select their nominee for governor. There were many similarities to the Senate races in Ohio, Arizona, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania: a crowded field, mistrust between the campaigns, controversial candidates who might have won a plurality without being the most viable general election winner.
Virginia Republicans not only credit RCV for determining Glenn Youngkin had the widest support, but believe that it helped the party unite faster and helped Youngkin win an otherwise blue-trending state last November.
Republicans who would rather kick winnable races away, meanwhile, have been running RCV down as some sort of confusing scam. That’s because Alaska voters selected a Democrat, Mary Peltola, in a special election for the U.S. House last month that used RCV. Peltola bested two Republicans, Sarah Palin and Nick Begich. Yet Peltola led in first rankings after the initial round of the RCV election by nine points, and then topped Palin head to head.
Peltola would have won any election – plurality, head-to-head, or with RCV. Palin lost every time not because of the rules, but because – that’s right – she lacked likability. Some 60 percent of Alaskans viewed Palin negatively. Alaska’s little-known secret is that, while it is a solidly conservative state, 60% of Alaskans are registered as “independent.” Only 25% of Alaskan voters are registered as Republicans, so reaching out beyond the core Republican base is Palin’s challenge, yet so far she has been incapable of doing it .
RCV has the additional appeal of ending any talk about third-party spoiler candidates. Instead, it encourages major parties to reach out to Libertarians and Greens and other influential voters who often decide three-way general elections, pay attention to their issues, and build broader coalitions rather than browbeating them.
RCV provides the GOP an off-ramp from their likability problem. Smart leaders should stop squandering millions to no end and embrace a real solution – before these races and the chance to win a legislative majority slip through their hands.