Insiders dominate year of the outsider

Insiders dominate year of the outsider
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In a cycle in which political outsiders Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay: AP MORE (I-Vt.) have been powerful forces in the presidential race, insiders continue to win House and Senate primaries around the country.

Only five members of Congress have lost bids for renomination as the primary season draws to a close.

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Two of those losers, Reps. Corrine BrownCorrine BrownFormer Florida rep sentenced to five years in prison for fraud, tax evasion Genuine veteran charities face a challenge beating the fakes Former Florida rep found guilty of tax evasion, fraud MORE (D-Fla.) and Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), were fighting federal indictments over misappropriated funds.

Two more, Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) and Randy ForbesJames (Randy) Randy ForbesToo much ‘can do,’ not enough candor Trump makes little headway filling out Pentagon jobs Why there's only one choice for Trump's Navy secretary MORE (R-Va.), lost after mid-decade redistricting forced them to court unfamiliar voters.

A fifth, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), was arguably more of a political outsider than his opponent.

Huelskamp, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, lost to a fellow Republican who had the tacit backing of party leaders angered by Huelskamp’s actions in Washington.

Three states will hold their primary elections next Tuesday. In those states, only one incumbent — Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) — faces a serious challenge following a campaign finance scandal and repeated run-ins with the Federal Election Commission.

The establishment victories come despite political winds that favored outsiders.

Angry at a political system they see as stacked against them, millions of voters turned out during the primary season to cast ballots for Trump and Sanders, both of whom railed against the establishment and promised wholesale change.

At the same time, those voters renominated the vast majority of lawmakers seeking another term in office — despite the current Congress’s terrible approval ratings.

Strategists who pay careful attention to House races attribute incumbents’ high retention rate, even amid voters’ desire for change, to a few factors.

The first, and most obvious, comes from the likes of Trump and Sanders, who gave voters a way to express their anger.

“The top of the ticket this year has provided ample room to stretch your legs and vent your anger on both sides of the ticket,” said Brad Todd, who has run independent expenditures for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRSC) for years. “Feeling the Bern or getting on the Trump Train was a lot more exciting as recreational activity than beating up on your local congressman in a primary.”

Some Republican strategists point to the fact that many of the groups who might ordinarily bolster conservative challengers have been otherwise occupied trying to stop Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee.

The Club for Growth, which funded many conservative challengers in previous years, has largely avoided taking on incumbents this year. Instead, the group has spent money funding candidates in open seats — and on advertisements during the presidential primaries aimed at wounding Trump.

The second factor aiding incumbents is partisan polarization, which gives members a chance to direct voter anger at the other party. Sanders supporters may see Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE as untrustworthy or too centrist, and Trump backers may blame GOP leadership for failing to hold the line against President Obama, but their level of anger at the other party exceeds the intramural squabbling. 

Trump voters hate Democrats, and Sanders supporters despise Republicans, factors incumbents can use in what might otherwise be tough primaries.

“While they get dinged by their primary challenger for being a sellout, out of touch, et cetera, they turn around and talk about voting six times to defund Planned Parenthood, or, in the case of a Democrat, voting six times to stop the defunding of Planned Parenthood,” said Rodd McLeod, a Democratic strategist in Arizona.

Finally, incumbents have learned to be prepared. After conservative challengers denied renomination to Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) and House Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorGOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington House Republicans find silver lining in minority MORE (R-Va.) in recent years, Republican strategists have worked overtime to make their incumbents understand the risks posed in a primary.

The NRSC and allied outside groups spent heavily last cycle to bolster Sens. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTop 5 races to watch in 2019 Bottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy MORE (R-Miss.) and Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsWomen's civil rights are not a state issue The Hill's 12:30 Report: Tough questions await Trump immigration plan Pat Robertson: Alabama 'has gone too far' with 'extreme' abortion law MORE (R-Kan.). This year, members like Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainClimate change is a GOP issue, too It's Joe Biden's 2020 presidential nomination to lose Meghan McCain on Pelosi-Trump feud: 'Put this crap aside' and 'work together for America' MORE (R-Ariz.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package MORE (R-Fla.), Reps. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), Diane BlackDiane Lynn BlackLamar Alexander's exit marks end of an era in evolving Tennessee Juan Williams: The GOP's worsening problem with women How to reform the federal electric vehicle tax credit MORE (R-Tenn.), Bill FloresWilliam (Bill) Hose FloresOvernight Energy: GOP lawmaker parodies Green New Deal in new bill | House Republicans accuse Dems of ramming through climate bill | Park Service chief grilled over shutdown House Republicans accuse Dems of ramming through climate bill Seven Republicans vote against naming post office after ex-Rep. Louise Slaughter MORE (R-Texas) and Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyHouse votes to boost retirement savings Democrats seize on IRS memo in Trump tax battle Oil companies join blitz for carbon tax MORE (R-Texas) heeded early warnings about potential challenges. All survived.

Even at the height of the Tea Party movement and the political tumult of the last decade, primary challengers were rarely successful. Since 2006, only 28 members of Congress have lost bids for reelection during the primaries.

The largest exodus came in 2012, when 13 members lost renomination. Nine of those members lost because they were running in districts substantially different from their old seats after the decennial redistricting cycle.

The two most visible challenges to incumbents this year came in Wisconsin and Florida, where conservatives tried to oust House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash storm hits Capitol Hill Debate with Donald Trump? Just say no Ex-Trump adviser says GOP needs a better health-care message for 2020 MORE (R-Wis.) and liberals tried to knock off Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who until this summer chaired the Democratic National Committee. Unlike Cantor, both Ryan and Wasserman Schultz maintained strong political teams in their district, and both turned away their challengers.

“We’re at the point now that in most districts they’ve got a member who represents the leanings of the primary voting electorate, so there’s no motivation for a primary challenge,” said Carl Forti, a longtime Republican strategist involved in House and Senate campaigns.