Campaign Columnists

‘Mr. Smith’ not moving up in Congress

Greg Nash

Earlier this year, I wrote, “Mr. Smith decides to head home,” as venerable lawmakers headed for the exits in droves.

Tuesday’s primaries underscored another development in this year’s elections —“Mr. Smith” isn’t getting promoted, either.

{mosads}Three House members fell short in their quest for higher office, and one still faces a difficult runoff.

Another former lawmaker failed in her comeback bid, despite a boost from her famous Clinton in-laws, while a second will have to wait until July to find out his primary fate.

Rejecting D.C. service has become the norm from a dissuaded electorate. It’s clear voters no longer see a Washington resume as an asset. In fact, it’s really a blemish given the latest Gallup poll that put congressional approval at just 15 percent.

In races from Pennsylvania to Georgia, primary voters picked outsiders over incumbent members of Congress on Tuesday. The path won’t get any better going forward for members in competitive primary or even general election battles.

In Georgia, Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun handily lost in the crowded Georgia GOP Senate primary, to the relief of national Republicans who saw the gaffe-prone conservative lawmakers as radioactive in a general election.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) was the only one of the Georgia trio of lawmakers still standing. He finished second to wealthy businessman David Perdue, who wasted no time in painting the 20-year congressman as a creature of Washington.

“You know, one thing we did tonight is retire three career politicians,” Perdue said in a victory speech that also referred to former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel.

“And we have one more,” he added, gunning for his July runoff with Kingston.

In his ads, the former Dollar General CEO literally portrayed his opponents as crying babies in front of the Capitol. Kingston is backed by the Chamber of Commerce and has painted Perdue as an out-of-touch elitist.

The Pennsylvania governor’s race followed a similar storyline.

Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a former chief fundraiser and recruiter for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, looked like the front-runner to secure her party’s nomination when she jumped in. But she was crushed by businessman Tom Wolf, who poured more than $10 million of his own money into the primary.

“Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s Washington résumé doesn’t excite voters in Pa. governor’s race,” was The Washington Post headline the day before the election.

Nostalgia didn’t help former Rep. Marjorie Margolies (D-Pa.) win her comeback bid, either. The former one-term congresswoman, whose son is married to Chelsea Clinton, lost handily to well-known state Rep. Brendan Boyle, despite last minute help from both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Quixotic ex-congressman Bob Barr, a one-time Clinton impeachment manager who later left the GOP to run as a libertarian for president, finished second in a Georgia runoff for his old seat. He’ll face state Sen. Barry Loudermilk, who has conservative support, in July.

Oklahoma is the next primary contest where a formerly front-running member of Congress is dropping to an outsider. Rep. James Lankford, the Republican Policy Conference chairman, was the early favorite to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). 

But Tea Party activists and conservatives have rallied around former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon instead, charging that Lankford’s two whole terms in Washington and his position in GOP leadership have disqualified him to move to the upper chamber.

Recent polls show that message could be working — Lankford’s early, comfortable lead has vanished, and the June primary is now a dead heat, though an internal poll from his campaign this week did put him up 10. 

The lawmakers who could still move up the ladder either don’t face a primary battle or don’t have a serious challenger.

The GOP cleared the field for Republican congressmen-turned Senate candidates Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.).

Rep. Steve Daines (Mont.) doesn’t face a serious challenge, and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) won easily last week, despite early threats from conservatives. Rep. Bill Cassidy (La.) is still the GOP front-runner against Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), but that race is likely going to a December runoff.

Democrats cleared Senate primaries for Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa) and Gary Peters (Mich.), but their GOP opponents are making their Washington experience one of their top arguments against them.

And next week in Texas, 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) faces a spirited challenge from former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe in a runoff election. The challenger hasn’t been afraid to point out Hall’s age and insinuate it’s time for a change in Washington.

In New York, too, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) faces another challenge from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat after edging him out by just over 1,000 votes in 2012.

As all of these lawmakers are finding out the hard way, experience isn’t what it used to be, and voters are increasingly rejecting what they see as the political pipeline.

In 2012, six House members successfully won Senate races while five lost races to move up. That number of success will probably drop this year.

As Schwartz, Gingrey and others learned the hard way, politics is quickly becoming the business where experience doesn’t count, at least not the Washington kind.

This post was updated May 23 at 12:02 p.m. 

Tags Bruce Braley Cory Gardner Hillary Clinton Mary Landrieu Paul Broun Phil Gingrey Ralph Hall Shelley Moore Capito Tom Coburn Tom Cotton

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