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 TrumpDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to visit White House on Monday Transportation Dept requests formal audit of Boeing 737 Max certification MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAlan Dershowitz: In defense of Chelsea Clinton O'Rourke: Decisions on late-term abortions 'best left to a woman and her doctor' CNN to host town hall with Cory Booker in South Carolina 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 ClintonDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Dem strategist says Donna Brazile is joining Fox News 'for the money' CNN to host town hall with Cory Booker in South Carolina 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 CantorHouse Republicans find silver lining in minority Top-level turnover sparks questions about Chamber Pelosi warns GOP: Next president could declare national emergency on guns 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 RobertsPompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' Senators offer bipartisan bill to fix 'retail glitch' in GOP tax law Kansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo MORE (R-Kan.). This year, members like Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump steps up attacks on McCain Trump: 'I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be' Santorum: Trump should 'send emails to a therapist' instead of tweeting MORE (R-Ariz.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen Dem senator wants Trump to extend immigration protections to Venezuelans Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump 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 FloresHouse Republicans find silver lining in minority Rep. Mike Johnson wins race for RSC chairman GOP approves rule for Don Young MORE (R-Texas) and Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradySmaller tax refunds put GOP on defensive Key author of GOP tax law joins Ernst and Young Lawmakers beat lobbyists at charity hockey game 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 RyanPaul Ryan joins board of Fox Corporation Bottom Line Paul Ryan says Trump will win reelection because of 'record of accomplishment' 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.