Politics

The Midterms Are About Whether Clown Candidates Will Cost the GOP

When it comes to “candidate quality,” how low can you go?

An illustration of a clown.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

In 2016 most political experts believed that Donald Trump could not possibly win the presidency because scientific public opinion polls showed that a majority of the American population considered him to be a mendacious sideshow of a human.

But it turned out that it’s possible, in fact, to win a national U.S. election with such a reputation because significant minorities of the public either 1) assume that anyone who is so widely despised by “elites” must be “on their side” because they’re pissing off the right people or 2) care so little for the Democratic Party that they will still vote for a Republican even if they are fully and terrifyingly aware that the Republican in question is Donald Trump. Trump swept into office on this coalition of “hell yes!” and “fine, whatever.”

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Having been taught a memorable lesson in 2016, many political experts—as well as many normal people—then assumed in 2020 that Donald Trump could not possibly lose an election to Joe Biden, despite his reputation having, if anything, gotten worse over the course of his term. (The process perhaps reached its apex in his making the suggestion, on live national television, that scientists look into developing methods of flooding the body with bleach in order to kill potential COVID viruses therein.) But it turned out that it still is, in fact, possible to lose an election in the United States in spite of MAGA support—something that had been proven on a more local scale in Alabama three years earlier, when Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones amid a series of reports that he had made repeated romantic overtures toward underage women. (Moore continues to deny these allegations.)

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2022 presents a more robust series of tests that will deepen our understanding of when, exactly, it’s possible to be too much of a known bozo—loosely defined as someone who behaves erratically in their personal life and/or espouses a serious belief in conspiracy-theory claims that the general public considers ludicrous. In what is otherwise set up to be a “wave election” for the GOP, such candidates range from “stolen election” zealots like Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano, running in Arizona and Pennsylvania, to unreliable narcissists like Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz, running in Georgia and, hmm, Pennsylvania. (Note to self: Avoid entering Pennsylvania?) In the race for the House, there is Ohio candidate J.R. Majewski, who wore a QAnon shirt on national television, painted Donald Trump’s face on his lawn, and appears to have lied about aspects of his record as a nuclear-power executive and Afghanistan veteran in that he does not appear to have ever been a nuclear-power executive or deployed to Afghanistan.

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All these races are either toss-ups or likely losses for the GOP in a year in which generic Chamber of Commerce Republicans with generic accountant faces and names—like, to take just one example, “Mike DeWine”—are expected to coast to double-digit victories. For that, you can probably blame a Republican primary electorate increasingly attuned to the national concerns and storylines that preoccupy right-wing news sources. These MAGA die-hards and their preferred outlets turn any race that reaches a certain level of public attention into a referendum on fidelity to Trump dogma regarding subjects like the 2020 election—fidelity that, in a perverse twist, can be proven not just by repeating certain talking points but by being obnoxious and full of it on a personal basis.

Thus has this midterm cycle, which might have otherwise been a smooth Republican rout, become a test, in many places, of what more strongly motivates swing voters in the middle of the electorate: an aversion to extremist weirdos or annoyance about the surging price of toilet paper. Ah, democracy, the noble experiment!

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