GOP Voters Punish U.S. House Lawmakers Seeking Higher Office

(Bloomberg) -- Republican voters are favoring local officials and political outsiders over Washington veterans on primary ballots this year, dealing defeats to several House lawmakers trying to move on to higher offices.

Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho on Tuesday became the latest Republican incumbent to lose out. Although he was elected to four terms in the House, GOP voters rejected Labrador’s bid to become the party’s nominee for governor in the state, giving it instead to Lieutenant Governor Brad Little.

Labrador’s defeat came one week after Republican voters in three states made similar choices.

West Virginia Representative Evan Jenkins lost a primary for the U.S. Senate race to state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Indiana Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita lost a three-way contest to Mike Braun, a businessman and former state legislator. And in North Carolina, Representative Robert Pittenger lost his House primary -- a rare occurrence for an incumbent seeking renomination -- to Baptist pastor Mark Harris, who labeled Pittenger as insufficiently conservative.

A common thread in the Senate campaigns: all the candidates competed to show they were most closely aligned with President Donald Trump, who won office portraying himself as a political outsider.

Outsider Appeal

“The ‘outsider’ appeal we saw hit paydirt in 2016 is still very real, and when given a choice, it’s no surprise that a plurality of Republicans are drawn to an anti-Washington message,” said Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former staff member with the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.

He said in an email that the phenomenon “does reflect the root of the president’s appeal, if not a doubling down on the same impulse.”

Voters haven’t rejected House veterans across the board. Representative Lou Barletta won a Pennsylvania Senate primary on Tuesday, while Representative Jim Renacci won a Senate primary in Ohio last week. But neither of them faced competitive primaries and both won the early endorsement from Trump, who remains popular among GOP voters.

“Being in the House used to be a good launching pad to the Senate or the governor’s office. This cycle it appears to be a major liability,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate and governor’s races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It could be as simple as Congress is unpopular and voters don’t believe that these candidates deserve a promotion."

Numerous polls taken over the last month show that almost three-quarters of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. A Monmouth University poll conducted in late April showed Congress’s approval rating at 17 percent.

The House members who’ve been defeated span the ideological spectrum from mainstream Republicans like Jenkins, to outspoken ideologues like Rokita, to Labrador, who in 2015 co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, a group of rabble-rousing conservatives that led the push to depose former Speaker John Boehner and seeks to pull GOP leaders to the right.

Duffy said the difficulties being faced by incumbents may not be isolated to Republicans, but there aren’t enough Democratic incumbents facing competitive primaries to measure whether both parties are being effected.

Democrats are facing their own challenges as the party’s the left flank showed some muscle in a Nebraska primary contest on Tuesday Kara Eastman, a nonprofit executive backed by the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee won a narrow victory over Brad Ashford, a former congressman who was favored by the House Democratic election arm to run for a competitive district around Omaha.

The result is a departure from other recent primaries where moderate Democrats have either defeated or avoided challenges from the left, including Representative Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Senators Doug Jones in Alabama, Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Joe Donnelly in Indiana. Manchin and Donnelly, two of the most conservative Democrats, coasted to renomination in states won by Trump while touting their bipartisan credentials.

Eastman endorsed a single-payer “Medicare for all” health insurance system and called for repeal of the Republican tax cuts enacted in December, while presenting herself as a fighter. Ashford took more centrist positions and portrayed himself as a compromiser.

Stephanie Taylor, a co-founder of the PCCC, branded Ashford as a “former Republican, anti-choice, conservative Blue Dog, corporate ‘New Democrat.’”

However, Eastman’s primary victory may make it more difficult for Democrats to unseat incumbent Republican Representative Don Bacon in November. With her win, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election tracker, changed the race rating due to from "toss up" to "lean Republican."

The Democratic establishment will be tested again over the next two weeks in Texas and California.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.