If there was a lesson to be learned from the 2010 Senate elections, it’s that the quality of candidates matters—a lot. That’s why now-Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., was able to win comfortably in President Obama’s home state against a not-ready-for-prime-time challenger. It’s why Nevada Republican Sharron Angle couldn’t oust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the most unpopular incumbents in the entire country.
And the question of candidate quality is looming large in three key battleground Senate races that involve Republicans who have impressive accomplishments on paper but have yet to translate that potential onto the campaign trail. In Florida, the GOP has a candidate with a perfect political pedigree (Rep. Connie Mack); in Ohio, it has another who has set fundraising records (Josh Mandel). In Missouri, Republicans have a candidate with personal wealth (John Brunner), one with political experience (Rep. Todd Akin), and one with a compelling biography (Sarah Steelman) squaring off against each other. But none has yet proven an ability to connect with voters on a statewide level—the most important job of a recruit.
These three races, all pivotal to determine which party controls the Senate, will all come down to whether the Republican nominee can make that credibility pitch. In all three states, the environment is encouraging for the GOP, with President Obama’s job-approval rating underwater and the Democratic incumbents burdened by unpopular votes.
But unlike in 2010, the environment won’t overwhelmingly favor the party. At best, good Republican candidates can capitalize on the president’s unpopularity and exploit their opponents’ votes on legislation. This time around, though, they will have to contend with voter dissatisfaction with the Republican leadership in Congress.
One of the biggest tests of a candidate’s promise versus the reality of a statewide campaign will come in Ohio. Mandel, the state treasurer, is running unopposed for the GOP nomination. His political resume is unmatched: He’s a Jewish Marine Corps reservist with a spotless political record. In his 20s, he won a state House seat in a Democrat-friendly Cleveland district. Already a rising star within the party, Mandel won his 2010 race for treasurer convincingly. With the dust hardly settled on his victory, his name was already at the top of the list among Republican officials considering who would be the best person to run against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Mandel entered the race in April, cleared the field, and pulled in a whopping $1.5 million in his last fundraising quarter, outdistancing the senator.
That makes Mandel a grade-A recruit—on paper. But in reality, some Republican strategists are fretting that the party is nominating an untested 34-year-old who looks like a fresh-faced college student for a seat in the geriatric Senate. Brown has his vulnerabilities, but he’s a familiar figure, and he has the campaign skills to overcome his liberal voting record.
The Republican front-runner in Florida has the opposite challenge. Mack has a name that’s golden in statewide Republican circles, with his father having served in the Senate from 1989 to 2001. He’s also half of a Washington power couple, with his wife Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif. And a new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald poll shows him within striking distance of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., trailing 45 percent to 42 percent.
But Mack has run an underwhelming campaign so far, spending more time tailing Newt Gingrich as a Mitt Romney surrogate than focusing on his Senate campaign. And many Republican strategists worry that his solid numbers are due as much to his famous last name as anything he’s done in Congress.
Nelson, more than other targeted Democrats, has made some attempt to distance himself from the president on certain issues. His favorability is still respectable. But in a presidential year, with Obama’s weak approval in the state, the right challenger should give him a run for his money. Many strategists are skeptical of Mack’s ability to pull it off.
Finally, there’s Missouri, where Sen. Claire McCaskill has the weakest approval ratings of the Democratic senators up for reelection. She’s also facing a crop of Republican challengers who haven’t distinguished themselves, despite hints of potential. There’s Brunner, a businessman who is capable of self-financing a campaign to the tune of millions. But he’s been kept under wraps since entering the race. Former state treasurer Steelman looked like a compelling candidate, but she has underwhelmed with anemic fundraising. And Akin, who entered the race to some fanfare, now looks like the weakest candidate in the field.
Republicans are counting on winning Missouri as one of the necessary building blocks of a Senate majority, and they expect to make a serious play for both Ohio and Florida. In 2006, Democrats were able to take back the Senate thanks to strong campaigns from candidates like Ohio’s Brown, Pennsylvania’s Robert Casey, and Montana’s Jon Tester. Republicans are hoping that recruits like Mack, Mandel, and Brunner can play the same role of majority-makers in 2012.
This article appears in the Feb. 1, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.