There were some important primary races in four states yesterday, and as far as Donald Trump is concerned, the Republican Party “had a great night.” The truth is a little more complicated.At face value, since yesterday’s contests were primaries, it would have been tough for the GOP to have a bad night, since these were intra-party races. But more important is the fact that for one key part of the Republican Party – current GOP members of the U.S. House – it wasn’t a great night at all.
In fact, last night saw the first defeat for a House incumbent of 2018. Roll Call noted:
North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger is the first incumbent of 2018 to lose, falling to former pastor Mark Harris in Tuesday’s 9th District Republican primary.
Harris defeated Pittenger 48.5 percent to 46 percent, reversing the result from two years ago when the latter won by just 134 votes in a recount.
President Donald Trump carried the district, which stretches along the South Carolina border and includes affluent neighborhoods of Charlotte and its suburbs, by 12 points in 2016. Pittenger and Harris both sparred over loyalty to the president.
The congressman heavily outspent his challenger, but it didn’t matter. As a Washington Post analysis put it, Harris “portrayed the third-term lawmaker as a creature of ‘the swamp’ and relentlessly hammered him over his March vote for the $1.3 trillion spending bill.”
What’s more, Pittenger isn’t the only GOP congressman suddenly facing unemployment at the end of this Congress. In Indiana’s U.S. Senate primary, the contest was supposed to come down to Republican Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, who spent months attacking each other, and who both ended up losing to businessman (and former Democrat) Mike Braun, who based much of his message on criticizing Congress.
In West Virginia’s U.S. Senate primary, Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins was supposed to be a top contender, but he lost, too.
Even in Ohio’s U.S. Senate primary, Republican Rep. Jim Renacci prevailed, but he was supposed to cruise to an easy victory, and he instead fell short of 50% of the vote in his four-way contest.
These results weren’t just unexpected; they’re also a departure from the historical norm.
It’s easy to assume that Congress is always unpopular, so its members might struggle when seeking promotions, but the opposite is true. The aforementioned Washington Post piece added, “Historically, House members have been perceived by voters as being the most qualified for promotion to the upper chamber. Many Republican senators came over from across the Capitol.”
Quite right. In fact, we talked about this four years ago, during the last midterm cycle. Congress wasn’t held in high regard at the time, and the House may have been a radical and dysfunctional mess, but voters nevertheless rallied behind Republican House members such as Cory Gardner (Colo.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Bill Cassidy (La.), James Lankford (Okla.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), and Steve Daines (Mont.), each of whom won their Senate races that year.
This year is proving to be a little different – and not in a way that will help House Republicans running for re-election sleep any easier.