On Thursday night, Tennessee Rep. Diane Black came nowhere near winning the state's GOP governor's nomination. Despite beginning the race as the front-runner, she finished 13 points behind the winner -- a wealthy businessman who ran as an outsider in the mold of, you guessed it, Donald Trump.
Black's convincing loss is simply the latest in a string of defeats for Washington, DC, Republicans seeking to win statewide office this year. She is the fifth sitting GOP member of the House to lose a statewide primary already in 2018, many of whom, like Black, began their races as the favorite only to be passed by a candidate running as an outsider to the Washington system.
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In Indiana, for example, conventional wisdom was that either Reps. Luke Messer or Todd Rokita would be the party's nominee against endangered Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly. But Mike Braun, a former state representative touting his business background and the fact that he hadn't spent a single day in Washington, was the winner. In one ad, Braun carried cardboard cutouts of Messer and Rokita and asked people to tell the two congressmen apart. In another, Braun insists:" Politics shouldn't be a career. We need folks with real world experience who get the job done and come back home ... I'm running because President Trump paved the way."
In West Virginia, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey attacked Rep. Evan Jenkins as a "liberal career politician" and ran an ad in which a West Virginia mountain is shown crashing down on the US Capitol. "Let's not just change Washington ... Let's blow it up and reinvent it." Morrisey won the primary earlier this summer and will face Sen. Joe Manchin (D) in the fall.
The message being sent by Republican voters is clear: They want more Trumps, not fewer. The President was the leading edge of a movement fueled by anger and disappointment with Washington, not its conclusion. Even with him now in the most powerful political office in the country, Republicans remain unhappy with the sort of leadership they are getting out of Washington -- and are ready to penalize anyone with a "Rep." in front of their names.
This shouldn't be terribly surprising. Poll after poll shows that Trump is among the most popular modern presidents among his own party. While only 40% of the overall population approves of the job Trump is doing in Gallup polling, 87% of Republicans are on board with how Trump is handling the presidency. Republican voters love how much Trump is willing to freak out the establishment -- even within his own party. Every time Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker Paul Ryan tut-tut at something Trump has said or done, his base loves it. It's exactly why he won the Republican nomination back in 2016.
Knowing how popular Trump's outsider message is, the likes of Black have tried everything they can to latch themselves to him. Black, the chair of the House Budget Committee, was by Trump's side when he signed the tax cut bill into law last year; "Diane Black of Tennessee, the highly respected House Budget Committee Chairwoman, did a GREAT job in passing Budget, setting up big Tax Cuts," tweeted Trump at the end of October. But, despite the fact that Black ran TV ads arguing that she was Trump's pick, the President himself withheld an endorsement that the congresswoman badly needed. (Vice President Mike Pence endorsed her campaign in a tweet on July 27.)
Meanwhile, Lee was flooding the airwaves with ads that painted him as the real Trump candidate in the race. "You know why I think President Trump has been so effective," he asked in one commercial. "Because he's a businessman, not a politician. He came from outside of government. ... That's the kind of leadership we need in Tennessee ... a conservative, an outsider, not a politician."
To be clear: Not every Republican member of Congress trying to move up to be governor or senator has lost their primary. Rep. Kristi Noem won a gubernatorial primary South Dakota and Rep. Lou Barletta emerged as the Senate nominee in Pennsylvania -- albeit thanks in no small part to strong support from Trump.
And in the coming weeks, there will be another series of primaries that will test the theory of just how hard it is to win as a Republican member of Congress. In Arizona, Rep. Martha McSally faces a challenge from former state legislator Kelli Ward and controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Trump pardoned last year. In Florida, Rep. Ron DeSantis is regarded as the favorite to be the Republican gubernatorial nominee although, like Barletta, that status is due to Trump's outspoken support for his candidacy. (Trump was in Tampa earlier this week to boost DeSantis.)
The writing appears to be on the wall: If you are a Republican member of Congress running to be a governor or senator from your state, you had better hope that Trump not only likes you but publicly endorses you. Such an endorsement from the President seems to be an inoculation of sorts against GOP voter anger and unhappiness about what the party in Washington has done and continues to do. Short of that sort of Trump vaccination, however, you are fighting an uphill battle -- particularly if you are running against someone who is more easily able to make the case as a Washington outsider.
Donald Trump's purge of GOP establishment figures in the 2016 election was truly stunning. But it appears that it was only the start. Republican base voters are still mad as hell -- and they are still taking it out on Washington Republicans.
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