For months, the political world has been abuzz with talk of the “angry” electorate. Voters are fed up and eager to give the political establishment and its ineffectual insiders the one-finger salute. It’s this exasperation, the argument goes, that’s helped fuel Donald Trump’s rise in Republican politics and the progressive enthusiasm surrounding Bernie Sanders.
But the thesis has a noticeable flaw: furious voters, desperate for radical and revolutionary changes, would probably start kicking out congressional incumbents in primaries, too. After all, if the electorate believes a rotten establishment needs to be overturned, it stands to reason sitting members of Congress would be among the first to go.
Except the opposite has happened. Plenty of congressional incumbents have faced primary challengers in states across the country, but going into last night, these lawmakers’ success rate was literally 100%. Every single challenger in 2016 has lost in every single congressional primary.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, that changed yesterday in Pennsylvania, though this is a classic case of the exception proving the rule.
Chaka Fattah, a fixture in Philadelphia politics for three decades, was ousted from the Second Congressional District seat by State Rep. Dwight Evans in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.Fattah’s fall came 20 days before the start of his federal criminal trial, an impending peril he tried to downplay as he campaigned for a 12th term.
So, with one congressional incumbent going down in a primary, do we need to re-evaluate the thesis about furious voters rebelling against the political establishment? In this case, not even a little – Fattah’s loss actually helps prove the opposite.
The Philadelphia Democrat is facing 29 criminal charges, including bribery and money laundering, which in turn encouraged state Rep. Dwight Evans (D) to run against Fattah in the first place.
And given the severity of the allegations – each of which Fattah denies – the party establishment quickly abandoned him. Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor and Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor both endorsed Evans over the incumbent congressman.
In other words, the Democratic establishment opposed Fattah and voters followed suit. Fattah’s defeat wasn’t evidence of an anti-establishment attitude, so much as it was proof of a pro-establishment attitude, since local voters were following party leaders’ direction.
Those looking for support for the “angry voter” thesis will have to look elsewhere.
Postscript: Another Pennsylvania incumbent congressman, Republican Bill Shuster, appears to have narrowly survived his own primary challenge, but this also appears unrelated to broader trends in public sentiment. Shuster is caught up in a controversy surrounding his romance with an airline-industry lobbyist while he chairs the House Transportation Committee.