It’s hard to win a Senate race when you’ve never won an election before

Politics does not have an agricultural system like that of professional baseball. But it has its own hierarchy to cultivate political perspectives. The path usually goes something like this: First, a candidate wins a relatively minor local office such as a city council or state representative. Then, they get a seat in the United States House or a statewide office as the Attorney General. Only then do they run for the Senate or Governor.

Most Democrats running competitive races in the Senate and government have taken a version of this course. For example, John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Pennsylvania, served as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania for 13 years before being elected lieutenant governor of the state in 2018.

But most Republicans don’t. As a group, they have little experience running around the office and even less experience actually winning general elections. Historically, such candidates have a poor track record and could cost Republicans major government bids and control of the U.S. Senate in 2022.

The FiveThirtyEight model evaluates the candidate’s experience as part of our “foundation” calculation. Specifically, for candidates for the Senate and Governor, we use a four-level system based on the highest level of the candidate elected offices:

  • Level 3: United States Senator or Governor
  • Level 2: Representative of the United States or statewide elected office (for example, secretary of state) or major city mayor.
  • Level 1: any other non-trivial elected office (eg state senator).
  • Level 0: has never held non-trivial elective positions.

The reason that experience in winning past elections can send a valuable statistical signal is not necessarily that experience in elected office is valuable in itself. (For example, the candidates who are appointed in the United States Senate following a vacancy have poor results in winning a Senate term for themselves). Rather, it is the act of winning an election that matters, as it is a sign that a candidate is acceptable to a reasonably large group of voters.

Let’s take a look at the experience level of candidates and presumed candidates running in competitive races in the Senate:

Democratic Senate candidates have much more elective experience

FiveThirtyEight Experience Assessment for U.S. Senate Competitive Election Candidates

State Name of the candidate animal Name of the candidate animal
Arizona Marco Kelly I 3 Blake masters 0
Colorado Michele Bennet I 3 Joe O’Dea 0
Florida Val Demings 2 Marco Rubio I 3
Georgia Raphael Warnock I 3 Herschel Walker 0
Nevada Caterina Cortez Masto I 3 Adam Laxalt 2
New Hampshire Maggie Hasan * I 3 Donald Bolduc * 0
North Carolina Cheri Beasley 2 Ted Budd 2
Ohio Tim Ryan 2 JD Vance 0
Pennsylvania John Fetterman 2 Mehmed Oz 0
Wisconsin Mandela Barnes 2 Ron Johnson I 3
Average 2.5 1

* Presumed candidate
I looming

Democrats have an average experience score of 2.5 in these contests, and all candidates they have nominated or are expected to nominate qualify at least in the second level of experience. Republicans’ average experience rating is only 1.0, in reverse. This is partly due to the fact that they have fewer incumbents running, but even if you exclude incumbents from the average, there is still a huge gap: Democrats out of office have an average experience score of 2.0 vs.0. 5 for Republicans.

In fact, Republican Senate candidates in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania have never held elective positions before. Neither the alleged party candidate in New Hampshire, Donald Bolduc.

Having held an elective office is not a prerequisite for a higher office, and one can think of many candidates, from Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz, who won the bids for the US Senate as candidates for the first time. Even so, some of them had pedigrees in politics or fields related to politics. Cruz had been Texas Attorney General, for example, an unelected position that gave him a significant public profile. Mark Kelly, the Democratic incumbent in Arizona, won a Senate run on his first election in 2020, but had been an astronaut (often a successful stepping stone to political careers) and is the husband of the former States Representative. United Gabrielle Giffords.

This year’s crop of Republican candidates lacks these advantages. For example, Democrats have a variety of potential lines of attack against Blake Masters, the newly coined Republican Senate candidate in Arizona, from his ties to controversial billionaire Peter Thiel to suggestions of him that he could privatize Social Security. JD Vance of Ohio has had trouble raising money, a sign that he may not have the donor networks of more experienced politicians. Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania fell far behind in the polls as he was unable to dismiss Fetterman’s attack announcements that emphasize his residency in New Jersey.

How about the government races? Here are the evaluations of the experience in the elections for competitive government seats:

Democratic government candidates are also more experienced

FiveThirtyEight Experience Assessment for U.S. Competitive Government Election Candidates

State Name of the candidate animal Name of the candidate animal
Alaska The Race * 1 Mike Dunleavy * I 3
Arizona Katie Hobbs 2 Kari Lake 0
Connecticut Ned Lamont I 3 Roberto Stefanowski 0
Florida Charlie Crist 3 Ron De Santis I 3
Georgia Stacey Abrams 1 Brian Kemp I 3
Kansas Laura Kelly I 3 Derek Schmidt 2
Maine Janet Mills I 3 Paul LePage 3
Michigan Gretchen Whitmer 3 Tudor Dixon 0
Minnesota Tim Walz * I 3 Scott Jensen * 1
Nevada Steve Sisolak I 3 Joe Lombardo 1
New Mexico Michelle Lujan Grisham I 3 Marco Ronchetti 0
Oregon Tina Kotek 1 Cristina Drazan 1
Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro 2 Doug Mastriano 1
Wisconsin Tony Evers I 3 Rebecca Kleefisch 2
Average 2.4 1.4

* Presumed candidate
I looming

Here you can see another big gap: Democrats have an average experience score of 2.4, compared to 1.4 for Republicans. Excluding incumbents, Democrats have an average rating of 1.7, versus 1.0 for Republicans.

It is important to note that we should not view this as some kind of unfortunate stroke of luck for the GOP. Rather, this is an integral part of the modern Republican Party. Former President Donald Trump didn’t have much political experience when he ran against the party establishment in 2016. He has since repeatedly intervened against candidates he felt were not loyal enough to him, regardless of their political pedigrees.

Sure, there are Republicans who defy Trump, like the governor of New Hampshire. Chris Sununu. But this is a case in point: Sununu chose not to run for the US Senate. That seat is now quite likely to be held by the Democratic incumbent, Maggie Hassan, since she is likely to be racing against an inexperienced Bolduc.

In fact, the democratic chances of keeping the Senate continue to grow and are now 59% in our Deluxe forecast and 71% in the Classic version of our model. First-time nominees like Oz, Masters and Georgia’s Herschel Walker could blow up races Republicans would normally be ready to win.

CORRECTION (August 5, 2022, 2:44 pm): The second table in this article has been updated to correct the spelling of the names of Kari Lake and Michelle Lujan Grisham.

CORRECTION (August 5, 2022, 3:13 pm): The first table in this article has been updated to indicate that Donald Bolduc is not an incumbent in the US Senate.