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The GOP Doesn’t Seem To Be Cracking Up In Down-Ballot Races

One of the persistent political questions this year is whether the conflict among Republicans is solely driven by Donald Trump. Are we witnessing the culmination of decades of rising anger among the masses against out-of-touch elites, driven by the party’s own campaign strategies? Or does this crisis go away if Trump is not elected?

There’s plenty of evidence on both sides, but one way of getting at this question is to ask, as a reporter did of me recently, what would happen if political scientists could somehow run 2016 over again without Trump. Would we still see such a large number of presidential candidates and such late winnowing? Would we still see party insiders so apparently unable to coordinate around a preferred favorite? Would some other wealthy outsider have taken control of the process?

Obviously, we can’t run such a counterfactual election, but we can examine Republican nomination contests occurring at the state level across the country right now. After all, if the GOP really is experiencing a hostile takeover, we should be observing this beyond just the presidential level. Party changes tend to occur from the ground up, rather than the top down.

To narrow down the study a bit, let’s first look at open-seat Senate and gubernatorial primaries in competitive states where there’s substantial competition for the Republican nomination. I wanted to see what sorts of Republicans are running and which candidates seem to be leading the contests.

What I found was a substantial number of experienced, mainstream Republicans leading in their races for major office, which does not suggest a party that is cracking up.

Below, I go through those races, looking at the extent of government experience for the leading candidates. (I received some help from Governing’s Louis Jacobson in this effort.)


In Florida, nine candidates have entered the race for the Republican nomination to succeed Sen. Marco Rubio, who decided not to seek re-election in order to run for president. Those candidates vary widely in experience and background, but the three consistent poll leaders have been two congressmen, Ron DeSantis (with two terms in the House), and David Jolly (who is in his second term and worked for the previous incumbent in his district), and Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera (in his first term, but who served in the statehouse for a decade). These three have received the bulk of funding and endorsements in the race, as well.

Another nine candidates are vying for the GOP nod in the race to replace Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, who last year announced his decision to retire after five terms. The only two candidates with any serious showing in the polls are Sharron Angle, the tea party candidate who was defeated by Reid for the seat in 2010, and Rep. Joe Heck, a third-term incumbent and a former state senator. Heck is strongly favored for the nomination, judging from polls.

In Indiana, Sen. Dan Coats is retiring, and there were only two Republicans competing to succeed him, both of whom are currently congressmen. Marlin Stutzman has been in the House since 2010 and previously served as a state legislator, while Todd Young has also been in office since 2010 and previously worked for the Heritage Foundation and Sen. Richard Lugar. Young, who was backed by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, won easily.


In New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan is leaving office to run for the Senate. Four candidates are running for the Republican nomination to replace her. The early leader in polling and endorsements is Chris Sununu, the son of John H. Sununu, formerly governor and White House chief of staff, and the brother of former Sen. John E. Sununu.1 The other candidates include a state senator, a state representative, and the mayor of Manchester, the state’s largest city.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, cannot run for a third term because of state term limits. The leading Republican candidate to replace him is Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, although former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway is putting in a decent showing in the polls. Two other Republican candidates — businessman John Brunner and Navy SEAL Eric Greitens — are trailing substantially.

We can expand the field of races a bit by looking at the incumbent Republican senators and governors facing re-election this year in competitive states. Are they facing unusually strong primary challengers? Not really. Neither Govs. Pat McCrory (North Carolina) nor Mike Pence (Indiana) faced serious candidates in their primaries. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is facing a primary challenge from former state senator Jim Rubens, although Rubens hasn’t served in office since 1998. Senators Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) are running unopposed for re-nomination. Senators Roy Blunt (Missouri), Johnny Isakson (Georgia), Mark Kirk (Illinois), John McCain (Arizona), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Rob Portman (Ohio) do not seem to be facing serious primary challengers. Sen. Richard Burr (North Carolina) is running 30 percentage points ahead of his nearest challenger.

Obviously, these campaign dynamics can shift, and a candidate who appears to be a minor challenger now can rise to become an important one in a few months. Recent election cycles suggest, for example, that Republican incumbents are doing worse in primary races than they used to.


It’s too early to update this chart with the 2016 Republican primaries, but there’s little evidence that the party’s officeholders are under a massive assault this year. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily disprove the notion that the Republican Party is experiencing some level of turmoil.

We can also look at a pretty simple raw number — the total number of people who have filed to run for Congress by party. Since 2010, more Republicans than Democrats have filed to run for Congress. This was most notable in the big tea party insurgency year of 2010. But since then, the gap between the parties has subsided, as the chart below shows. This year, 1,356 Republicans and 1,136 Democrats have filed to run for Congress. If you limit the count to people who have recorded donations, it’s 717 Republicans versus 577 Democrats.


What all this suggests is that we’re not witnessing in down-ballot races a Trump-like assault on the Republican Party from the outside. The sorts of people who are running in open seats at the state level and are in positions to win are the sorts of people who have traditionally done well — seasoned politicians with roots in state politics.

A Trump nomination could well be costly for the party. If current polls are any indication, they could lose the presidency by a substantial margin, dragging down quite a few members of Congress and state legislators in the process, especially if Trump’s presence on the ballot drives up Democratic turnout. But the party should be able to recover from that. The presidency is obviously important to a party, but it is not all that a party is.


  1. There has been very little polling in this race, and none that I’m aware of recently, but Sununu led in the early surveys in late 2015.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of the book “Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.”