Usually a candidate's strength is measured by whether he or she won or lost and maybe by the margin of victory. But that is not an especially good gauge of how good the candidate was. For example, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) was reelected in 2021, so he is a strong candidate, right? Actually, no. He won 51% to 48% in New Jersey, which has a PVI of D+6, so he greatly underperformed. A generic Democrat would have done better than he did.
So who's actually a good candidate? Split-ticket.org has done some math on this using the concept of "wins above replacement." This compares how well a candidate did compared to the state's PVI and the national political environment for the year of the election. Nathaniel Rakich, at what is left of FiveThirtyEight, used this data to compile a list of the 20 strongest Democratic Senate candidates since 2017. It is somewhat surprising. Many of the strongest candidates lost, but lost by relatively small margins in states where they should by all rights have been decimated. This indicates that the candidates had the right stuff, but the environment was hopeless from the start. Here is the list:
|Year||State||Dem. candidate||Wins above replacement|
|2018||West Virginia||Joe Manchin||+30.7|
|2020||Rhode Island||Jack Reed||+9.6|
|2018||North Dakota||Heidi Heitkamp||+9.2|
|2018||New Mexico||Martin Heinrich||+9.0|
|2020||New Hampshire||Jeanne Shaheen||+8.4|
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) leads the list. He outperformed a generic Democrat in West Virginia by almost 31 points in 2018. Especially interesting is #4, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who outperformed a generic Democrat by almost 11 points in 2018 in Montana, a state with a PVI of R+11. If you can outperform a generic Democrat by 11 points in an R+11 state, you are headed for a near tie. Indeed, in 2018, Tester got 50.33% of the vote compared to the combined Republican's 46.78% and the Libertarian's 2.88% for a total of 49.66% against Tester. That's pretty close to a tie. Tester's ability to outperform generic Democrats shows that he is a strong candidate and that people like him personally.
The Republican-controlled Montana state legislature was afraid Tester could pull this off again, so it—naturally—made plans to change the law to make it harder for Tester. The plan was to have a nonpartisan primary, with the top two candidates advancing to the general election. The patently obvious reason for this, since it would only have applied to the 2024 Senate race and no others, was to get the Libertarian Party candidate off the November ballot. They had hoped the Libertarians would vote for the Republican candidate. However, that was a gamble. Libertarians don't like government in general and they certainly don't like this kind of government machinations in particular. They also tend to be pro-choice, on the grounds of "it's none of the government's damn business what you do with your own body."
Ultimately, the legislature backed down on their plan, since there was much blowback, as well as lawsuit threats. However, there is a very real possibility that the whole thing left a bad taste in the mouth of Libertarian Party voters, and that some of them will express that at the ballot box. So, the Montana GOP might bear the costs of their scheming without getting the benefits. (V)