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

Politics doesn’t have a farming system like professional baseball does. But it has its own hierarchy for cultivating political perspectives. The path usually goes something like this: First, a candidate wins a relatively minor local office, like city council or state representative. Then they win either a seat in the United States House or a statewide office like the Attorney General. Only then do they run for the Senate or the Governor of the United States.

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

But most Republicans didn’t. As a group, they have little experience as a job candidate, let alone experience in reality. winner General elections. Historically, these candidates have a poor track record — and in 2022, they could cost Republicans key gubernatorial races as well as control of the Senate.

FiveThirtyEight’s model rates candidate experience as part of our “fundamentals” calculation. Specifically, for Senate and gubernatorial candidates, we use a four-tier system based on the candidate’s highest level. elected Desk:

  • Level 3: US Senator or Governor
  • Tier 2: U.S. representative or elected statewide office (e.g. Secretary of State) or major city mayor
  • Tier 1: Any other nontrivial elected office (e.g., state senator)
  • Level 0: never held a non-trivial elected office

The reason why the experience of winning past elections may send a valuable statistical signal is not necessarily that the experience of elected office is valuable in itself. (For example, candidates who are appointed in the United States Senate following a vacancy have a poor track record of winning a Senate term for themselves.) Rather, it is the act of winner an election that counts because 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 presumptive candidates competing in competitive Senate races:

Democratic Senate candidates have far more elected experience

FiveThirtyEight’s Experience Ratings for Competitive US Senate Candidates

StateCandidate NameStageCandidate NameStage
ArizonaMark Kelly I3Blake Masters
ColoradoMichael Benet I3Joe O’Dea
FloridaVal Demings2blonde frame I3
GeorgiaRaphael Warnock I3Herschel walker
NevadaCatherine Cortez Masto I3Adam Laxalt2
New HampshireMaggie Hassan* I3Donald Bolduc*
North CarolinaCheri Beasley2Ted Bud2
OhioTim Ryan2JD Vance
PennsylvaniaJohn Fetterman2Mehmet Oz
WisconsinMandela Barnes*2Ron Johnson* I3

* Presumed candidate
I Incumbent

Democrats have an average experience score of 2.5 in these races, and all of the candidates they have nominated or are expected to nominate qualify at least to the second experience tier. The average Republican experience rating is just 1.0, on the other hand. That’s partly because they have fewer incumbents running, but even if you exclude the average incumbents, there’s still a huge gap: Non-incumbent Democrats have an average experience rating of 2.0. against 0.5 for the Republicans.

Indeed, Republican Senate candidates from Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania have never held elected office before. Neither does the party’s presumptive candidate in New Hampshire, Donald Bolduc.

Having held elected office is not a prerequisite for higher office, and one can think of many candidates, from Elizabeth Warren to Ted Cruz, who have won races for the United States Senate as candidates for the first time. Even so, some of them had pedigrees in politics or politics-related fields. Cruz had served as Solicitor General of Texas, for example — an unelected office but one that gave him a significant public profile. Mark Kelly, the Democratic incumbent from Arizona, won a Senate race in his first election of 2020, but he had been an astronaut (often a successful launching pad for political careers) and is the husband of the former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

This year’s crop of Republican candidates lacks those advantages. For example, Democrats have a variety of potential lines of attack against Blake Masters, the new Republican candidate for Arizona’s Senate, from his ties to controversial billionaire Peter Thiel to his suggestions to privatize Social Security. Ohio’s JD Vance has struggled to raise funds, a sign he may be lacking the donor networks of more experienced politicians. Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania has fallen behind in the polls as he was unable to fend off Fetterman’s attack ads that emphasize his New Jersey residency.

How about governor races? Here are the election experience ratings for competitive gubernatorial seats:

Democratic gubernatorial candidates also more experienced

FiveThirtyEight’s Experience Ratings for Competitive U.S. Gubernatorial Candidates

StateCandidate NameStageCandidate NameStage
AlaskaThe Gara*1Mike Dunleavy* I3
ArizonaKatie Hobbs2Lake Kari
ConnecticutNed Lamont I3Robert Stefanowski
Floridacharlie christ3Ron DeSantis I3
GeorgiaStacey Abrams1Brian Kemp I3
KansasLaura Kelly I3Derek Schmidt2
MaineJanet Mills I3Paul Le Page3
MichiganGretchen Whitmer3Tudor Dixon
MinnesotaTim Walz* I3Scott Jensen*1
NevadaSteve Sisolak I3Joe Lombardo1
New MexicoMichelle Lujan Grisham I3Marc Ronchetti
OregonFrom Kotek1Christine Drazan1
PennsylvaniaJosh Shapiro2Doug Mastriano1
WisconsinTony Evers I3Rebecca Kleefisch2

* Presumed candidate
I Incumbent

You can see another big gap here: Democrats have an average experience rating of 2.4, versus 1.4 for Republicans. Excluding incumbents, Democrats have an average rating of 1.7, against 1.0 for Republicans.

It’s important to note that we shouldn’t view this as some kind of unlucky fluke for the GOP. Rather, it 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. Since then, he has repeatedly stepped up against candidates he deemed insufficiently loyal to him, regardless of their political origins.

Of course, there are Republicans who challenge Trump — like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. But this is an example: Sununu chose not to run for the US Senate. That seat is now quite likely to be retained by Democratic incumbent, Maggie Hassan, since she is likely to run against an inexperienced Bolduc.

Indeed, the Democratic odds of retaining the Senate continue to rise and are now 59% according to our Deluxe forecast and 71% in the classic version of our model. First-time candidates like Oz, Masters and Georgia’s Herschel Walker could blow up races Republicans would normally be poised to win.

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

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

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