It’s Hard To Win A Senate Race When You’ve Never Won An Election Before

Politics doesn’t have a farm system in the way that professional baseball does. But it has a hierarchy of its own for cultivating political prospects. The path usually goes something like this: First, a candidate wins some relatively minor, local office like city council or state representative. Then, they either win a seat in the U.S. House, or a statewide office like attorney general. Only then do they run for Senate or governor.

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

But most of the Republicans haven’t. As a group, they have little experience running for office, and even less experience at actually winning general elections. Historically, such candidates have a poor track record – and in 2022 they could cost Republicans key gubernatorial races as well as control of the U.S. Senate. 

FiveThirtyEight’s model evaluates candidate experience as part of our “fundamentals” calculation1. Specifically, for Senate and gubernatorial candidates, we use a four-tiered system based on the candidate’s highest elected2 office:

  • Tier 3: U.S. Senator or governor
  • Tier 2: U.S. representative, or statewide elected office (e.g., secretary of state), or mayor of a large city.
  • Tier 1: Any other nontrivial elected office (e.g., state senator).
  • Tier 0: Has never held any nontrivial elected office.

The reason that experience in winning past elections can send a valuable statistical signal isn’t necessarily that experience in elected office is valuable unto itself. (For instance, candidates who are appointed to the U.S. Senate following a vacancy have poor track records at winning a Senate term for themselves). Rather, it’s the act of winning an election that counts, since it’s a sign that a candidate is acceptable to some reasonably large group of voters.

Let’s take a look at the experience level of nominees and presumed nominees running in competitive3 Senate races:

Democratic Senate candidates have far more elected experience

FiveThirtyEight’s experience ratings for candidates in competitive U.S. Senate elections

State Candidate name Tier Candidate name Tier
Arizona Mark Kelly i 3 Blake Masters 0
Colorado Michael Bennet i 3 Joe O’Dea 0
Florida Val Demings 2 Marco Rubio i 3
Georgia Raphael Warnock i 3 Herschel Walker 0
Nevada Catherine Cortez Masto i 3 Adam Laxalt 2
New Hampshire Maggie Hassan* i 3 Donald Bolduc* 0
North Carolina Cheri Beasley 2 Ted Budd 2
Ohio Tim Ryan 2 J.D. Vance 0
Pennsylvania John Fetterman 2 Mehmet Oz 0
Wisconsin Mandela Barnes 2 Ron Johnson i 3
Average 2.5 1

* Presumed nominee
i  Incumbent

Democrats have an average experience score of 2.5 in these races, and all the candidates they’ve nominated or are projected to nominate qualify in at least the second tier of experience. Republicans’ average experience rating is just 1.0, by contrast. That’s partly because they have fewer incumbents running, but even if you exclude incumbents from the average, there’s still a huge gap: non-incumbent Democrats have an average experience rating of 2.0 versus 0.5 for Republicans.

Indeed, the Republican nominees for Senate in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania have never held elected office before. Nor has the party’s presumed nominee in New Hampshire, Donald Bolduc.4

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

This year’s crop of Republican nominees don’t have those advantages. For instance, Democrats have a variety of potential attack lines against Blake Masters, the newly-minted Republican Senate nominee in Arizona, from his ties to controversial billionaire Peter Thiel to his suggestions that he might privatize social security. Ohio’s J.D. Vance has had trouble raising money, a sign that he may lack the donor networks of more experienced politicians. Pennsylvania’s Mehmet Oz has fallen well behind in polls as he has been unable to fend off Fetterman attack ads that emphasize his New Jersey residency.

How about gubernatorial races? Here are the experience ratings in elections for competitive gubernatorial seats:5

Democratic gubernatorial candidates are also more experienced

FiveThirtyEight’s experience ratings for candidates in competitive U.S. gubernatorial elections

State Candidate name Tier Candidate name Tier
Alaska Les Gara* 1 Mike Dunleavy* i 3
Arizona Katie Hobbs 2 Kari Lake 0
Connecticut Ned Lamont i 3 Robert Stefanowski 0
Florida Charlie Crist 3 Ron DeSantis 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 Mark Ronchetti 0
Oregon Tina Kotek 1 Christine Drazan 1
Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro 2 Doug Mastriano 1
Wisconsin Tony Evers i 3 Rebecca Kleefisch 2
Average 2.4 1.4

* Presumed nominee
i  Incumbent

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

It’s important to note that we shouldn’t regard this as some sort of unlucky fluke for the GOP. Rather, this is part and parcel 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 intervened against candidates who he thought were insufficiently loyal to him, regardless of their political pedigrees.

Sure, there are Republicans who challenge Trump – like New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. But that’s a case in point: Sununu chose not to run for the U.S. Senate. That seat is now pretty likely to be retained by the Democratic incumbent, Maggie Hassan, since she’s likely to be running against an inexperienced Bolduc.

Indeed, Democratic chances to keep the Senate continue to inch upward and are now 59 percent according to our Deluxe forecast and 71 percent in the Classic version of our model. First-time candidates like Oz, Masters and Georgia’s Herschel Walker could blow races that Republicans would ordinarily be poised to win.

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

CORRECTION (Aug. 5, 2022, 3:13 p.m.): The first table in this article has been updated to indicate that Donald Bolduc is not an incumbent in the U.S. Senate.