You can hire pollsters and high-paid consultants. You can get rich people to fund super PACs to bolster your campaign. You can do all sorts of micro-targeting and other so-called strategies to make yourself appeal to different kinds of voters. But if there's one heartening thing made very clear this past Tuesday, it's that candidates matter.
Todd Akin, a Republican congressman who, by the numbers, should have been a shoo-in against the less-than-popular Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in conservative Missouri, lost. He didn't just lose—he got whacked, 55 to 39 percent. And it wasn't because McCaskill had a more expensive media maven or that Akin lacked the database to identify potential voters. It's because he offended a wide swath of people by saying that women don't get pregnant after a "legitimate rape" because their bodies "shut that whole thing down" in such cases. Whether it was the insensitivity to sexual assault victims or the troubling thought that someone who served on the House Science and Technology Committee doesn't understand basic reproductive biology doesn't matter. The point is, it was Akin himself who lost his own race.
Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown had to fight for re-election against some $30 million in outside cash spent to defeat him. He won anyway, despite the big money. North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, won a Senate seat in a red state not because Democrats or President Barack Obama are popular there—they are not—but because the party recruited a good candidate, a moderate Democrat better suited for the state. Democrat Shelley Berkley in Nevada might have looked like she could capture the U.S. Senate seat there, riding Obama's coattails in a state he carried by six points. But Berkley was a flawed candidate, in the middle of a House ethics investigation, and Nevadans split tickets, electing GOP Sen. Dean Heller by a narrow, one-point margin.
The weeks after the elections (and the months before) are filled with blather about who had the better strategy, which candidate had the better advisers, and which TV ads were most effective. But it's the candidates who must earn votes. And despite all the money spent on federal campaigns this cycle, the candidates still matter.