Donald Trump has left his mark on the American body politic in myriad ways. But one of the lesser-discussed aspects of the way the 45th president forever changed this country is how he’s endowed unqualified idiots with the grandiose confidence to believe they, too, should run for high political office.
Look no further than the November midterms. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged that it was more likely the House would flip to Republicans than the Senate, blaming “candidate quality.”
The critique was interpreted as a veiled shot at Trump (who boosted some of the weakest Senate candidates, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and former NFL star Herschel Walker in Georgia). The truth, though, is that most people don’t realize that Trump has done even more damage to Republicans’ chances of taking back the Senate.
If Trump hadn’t sabotaged two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia back in 2020 by insisting the vote was rigged, Republicans would never have lost control of the Senate to begin with. What is more, Sen. Kelly Loeffler would be running for re-election, thus making Herschel Walker’s (shall we say) unorthodox candidacy a moot point.
The same could be said for Dr. Oz’s crudités faux pas. Absent Trump, it’s entirely possible that, instead of heading for the exits, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey would be coasting to re-election in the Keystone State.
Next door in Ohio, bestselling author J.D. Vance is facing an unexpectedly tough challenge from Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. But if not for the specter of Trump looming over GOP electoral politics, would Republican Sen. Rob Portman be retiring in what would normally be considered a great Republican year?
There have also been missed opportunities for candidate recruitment. In a normal world, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who is term-limited (and was attacked by Trump for not going along with the stolen election lie), likely would have run for the U.S. Senate this year. You could argue the same thing about New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu—a popular, sane Republican—who, too, opted not to run for the Senate.
Aside from pushing aside quality candidates who might, you know, win— another aspect of Trump’s influence is that he is a magnet for inexperienced and just plain weird wannabes.
“What do GOP Senate candidates Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker, Vance, [Arizona Senate candidate] Blake Masters, and the not-so-Trumpy [Colorado Senate candidate] Joe O’Dea have in common?” asks National Review’s Jim Geraghty. “None of them have run for office before. Ever. Not even town council or school board.” (Geraghty also points out that the same is true of Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.)
To be sure, the trend of inexperienced candidates predates Trump, even if Trump’s example has made the phenomenon more prevalent. Yes, the comedian and SNL veteran Al Franken was elected to the Senate from Minnesota, Arnold Schwarzenegger won the governorship in California, and, of course, a reality star named Trump was elected president.
Then there were the celebrities-turned-politicians that came to the table with some qualifications. Ronald Reagan was an actor, but he was also president of the Screen Actors Guild. Jack Kemp was a quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, but he was also a policy wonk who interned for Reagan before being elected to the House. Bill Bradley had a basketball Hall of Fame career with the New York Knicks, but he was a Rhodes scholar who also worked on political campaigns before winning a Senate seat out of New Jersey. Even the ex-wrestler and actor Jesse Ventura, following a stint as mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota—was elected governor of that state.
Some political naifs, in their chosen fields, are obviously talented. Dr. Ben Carson, for example, was a renowned neurosurgeon before becoming a laughable presidential candidate. But politics is different from other pursuits, and just because the rules didn’t apply to Trump in 2016 doesn’t mean they won’t apply to you.
And there’s a difference between wanting a bunch of boring establishment career politicians and thinking the U.S. Senate is a no-experience-required gig for washed-up celebrities.
Regardless, there will be zero price for Trump to pay if his melange of not-ready-for-prime time candidates lose in November—as increasingly seems likely.
If sabotaging the U.S. Senate the day before the Capitol riot wasn’t enough to harm him among Republicans, it’s hard to imagine that Dr. Oz losing to John Fetterman would kill his political career.
Besides, Trump would rather preside over a MAGA party whose remaining members are 100 percent beholden to him, than a big-tent party whose members think for themselves. He couldn’t care less if Republicans control the Senate in 2022. For Trump it is, and always will be, about Trump.
If anyone will pay the price politically, it’ll probably be Mitch McConnell, the loyal GOP tactician who so obviously despises Trump—but hesitated to put his own political capital on the line to vanquish him. Should Trump’s band of idiot candidates fail, it will cost McConnell the chance to reclaim the title of majority leader.
McConnell has had his chance to save the party before, like when he voted to acquit Trump at his second impeachment trial before unleashing an impassioned speech in which the Kentucky senator laid the blame for Jan. 6 exclusively at Trump’s feet.
But he blew it then, just as Republicans seem poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the midterms.
As Trump might say, “SAD!”
(Note: This article has been updated to accurately reflect Jesse Ventura's experience in government prior to being governor.)