ANALYSIS — Measuring the strength and weakness of candidates is a time-honored tradition in political analysis. But too often it’s too subjective. An Inside Elections metric quantifies the electoral performance of candidates, making it easier to test conventional wisdom and prevailing political narratives.
Did underwhelming nominees in key states torpedo GOP efforts to retake the Senate? Were Democratic incumbents as good as advertised? Vote Above Replacement (VAR) can help answer those questions.
Professional baseball’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) measures a player’s value by deciphering how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level player at his same position. Similarly, VAR measures the strength of a political candidate relative to a typical candidate from their party in the same state.
That initial benchmark is derived using Inside Elections’ Baseline, which captures a state’s political performance by combining all federal and state election results over the past four election cycles into a single trimmed mean. VAR is simply the candidate’s share of the vote minus the party’s Baseline. A higher VAR indicates a strong performance relative to expectations, while a negative VAR is evidence of underperformance.
According to conventional wisdom, lower-tier GOP challengers falling to strong Democratic candidates was a key component to Democrats expanding their Senate majority. VAR confirms that was the case.
Blake Masters (-3.9), Herschel Walker (-3.1), Don Bolduc (-2.9) and Mehmet Oz (-0.2) all posted negative VARs, which means they underperformed a typical GOP candidate in Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, respectively. Unsurprisingly, their respective opponents — Democratic incumbents Mark Kelly (2.8), Raphael Warnock (4.1) and Maggie Hassan (4.1), as well as John Fetterman (0.5) — all posted positive VARs.
But VAR casts doubt on at least one consistent talking point from the 2022 Senate cycle. Joe O’Dea in Colorado and Tiffany Smiley in Washington were considered two of Republicans’ best Senate nominees anywhere in the country. According to the narrative, the duo were running strong campaigns that would help them transcend the partisan makeup of their states.
VAR tells a different story. Both O’Dea (-2.3) and Smiley (-0.9) posted negative VARs, which means they did worse than a typical GOP nominee in their respective states.
O’Dea actually performed worse than Ohio Republican J.D. Vance (-1.6 VAR), who received plenty of criticism for his underwhelming general election campaign. Of course, Vance needed tens of millions of dollars of outside help to pull him across the finish line, but neither O’Dea nor Smiley endured the same level of attacks as Vance. And GOP Rep. Ted Budd had a negative 0.5 VAR in North Carolina but still won because of the partisan lean of the Tar Heel State.
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is just one example that shows that a positive VAR doesn’t guarantee victory. His 3.0 VAR was the highest of a Democratic challenger in a competitive race, but his heralded campaign wasn’t enough to overcome Ohio’s GOP lean. Former GOP state Attorney General Adam Laxalt had a positive VAR (1.2) in Nevada, but that wasn’t enough to defeat Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (0.3).
The best-performing GOP challenger was actually New York’s Joe Pinion, who had a VAR of 5.2 in his loss to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (-4). Pinion’s performance likely had more to do with Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul’s weakness on the ballot than the strength of his own campaign, which spent only $540,000.
Scott tops GOP
The GOP Senate candidate with the strongest overperformance was Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. His 6.1 VAR was a strong showing in a noncompetitive race on his path to a potential 2024 bid for the White House.
Other notable Republican VAR scores include Sen. Marco Rubio’s 3.8 in Florida, where Republicans trounced Democrats up and down the ballot, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s 3.3 in Iowa, where there was ample evidence the longtime incumbent was underperforming for much of the cycle.
Candidate quality mattered in Wisconsin, but in favor of Republicans. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes barely underperformed a typical Democrat (VAR -0.1) and narrowly lost to GOP Sen. Ron Johnson. The senator’s VAR of 2 was an improvement from his 2016 reelection, when he posted a -0.4.
There are some limits to what Vote Above Replacement reveals, as evidenced by Vermont. The Senate candidate with the highest VAR in either party in 2022 was Democratic Rep. Peter Welch. He outperformed a “typical statewide Democrat” by 9.5 points in his 41-point victory in the open seat. But, as pointed out by Inside Elections’ Bradley Wascher, Welch can thank GOP Gov. Phil Scott for making him look good, as Scott’s big wins in the past four cycles shifted Vermont’s Baseline disproportionately toward Republicans.
Later in the cycle, updated Baselines for all 435 House districts will reveal VAR scores for each House candidate.