Dear Washington, you stink

Dear Washington, you stink
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May 8 primary night proved that a key theme from the 2016 elections is far from over. People  still can’t stand Washington. Voters passed on Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — House moving to vote on deal after signals Trump will sign Artist buys Trump souvenir wedding cake for nearly K at auction The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Getting Trump to ‘yes’ on border security deal MORE’s advice to “Be Best” and instead bullied members of Congress up and down and off the ballot in several cases.  

It was a terrible night to be a congressman running in a competitive race. In the Charlotte, North Carolina, suburbs, incumbent Congressman Robert PittengerRobert Miller PittengerFight over North Carolina race set to drag on for months NC GOP calls on board to certify House race unless it can prove fraud changed results North Carolina on cusp of House race reset MORE lost his primary to a pastor he had defeated previously. In the Indiana Senate race, two incumbent members of Congress lost a primary to an “outsider”, a self-funded businessman who entered the race late. In West Virginia, a member of Congress lost his primary to the state attorney general — although he at least beat the most objectionable candidate on the ballot this cycle.

In an Ohio Senate primary that he should have won going away, Rep. Jim Renacci couldn’t break 50 percent. Same for Congressman Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesHouse pays tribute to Walter Jones GOP leader presses Trump to agree to border deal House passes resolution honoring Walter Jones MORE in North Carolina, who survived with only 43 percent of the vote. The smell of Congress even soiled former Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who lost badly in his Ohio Senate primary.


The message was clear. If you had the stink of Congress on you, you probably paid a price.  

It’s no surprise. The 2016 election cycle saw candidates with Washington credentials hammered harder than Bryce Harper hits fastballs. The ultimate outsider, Donald Trump was elected president over the consummate insider, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Exclusive: Biden almost certain to enter 2020 race MORE. Take that, Washington.

And voters aren’t done yet. They are still on a mission to drain the swamp, and credible candidates such as Mike Braun in Indiana who used that as a theme were successful. Voters still don’t think Washington listens to or understands them, and they are far from done with their purge.  

Congressional approval ratings are at submarine depth, scraping the bottom of the ocean with no signs of surfacing.  The Real Clear Politics average on May 1 was 17 positive and an astronomical 73 negative, for a net negative of 56. Roughly three out of four Americans don’t like Congress. While pundits cry out that we need to find common ground as a country, voters are shouting at us that they’ve already found common ground in their disdain for D.C.  

What does this mean as we head into the midterm elections? For Republicans, the news is tough. The party in power historically faces an uphill battle holding onto seats in Congress. But now, in addition to historical trends, Republican incumbents also face voters who want to punish them not because of ideology but on the basis of geography — their proximity to Washington. For 2018 voters, D.C may as well stand for “Defeat Congress” because that is their mission.  

The irony is thick that Trump sits atop the whole mess. While Democrats and “Never Trumpers” talk about his unpopularity, Trump has an average approval rating of 42, roughly three times that of Congress. Ordinarily this might offer hope for some Republicans running for reelection, but not in this case. Trump is the ultimate outsider president. His approval will not to translate down the ballot. In fact, voters’ frustration with Congress is a large reason that Trump is president, a reactionary statement that many members of Congress still haven’t clearly heard.  

Regardless, Trump voters are unlikely to come out en masse for the GOP in the midterms. Since roughly 70 percent of presidential voters return to midterm polling places, they probably won’t come back out all. Trump won’t be on the ballot, but the Congress they sent Trump to Washington to shake up will be. Voters will either stay home, or come with ill intentions.

Aligning with Trump seems like an obvious strategy but there are already signs that voters are seriously cynical when they see Washington politicians try to cozy up to Trump. In the Indiana primary, Rep. Todd RokitaTheodore (Todd) Edward RokitaHouse passes year-end tax package Indiana New Members 2019 Braun knocks off Donnelly in Indiana MORE made ads wearing a MAGA hat saying he would stand with Trump to drain the swamp. But voters looked in the swamp, saw Rokita and decided to drain him. Don Blankenship in West Virginia promised to be “Trumpier than Trump.” Voters agreed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' Winners and losers in the border security deal House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency MORE (R-Ky.), saying, “Thanks for playing, Don.” Candidates who insult the voters with political parlor tricks tend not to stay in Washington long, or never get there in the first place.

What popularity President TrumpDonald John TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could MORE does have is difficult to transfer to Republican candidates because Trump is a unique political creature, a functional independent in many ways. Trump is a product of the very movement in the electorate that now threatens every incumbent in Congress.  The smell of the swamp is strong, and Republicans are running out of time to clear the air with voters before November.

Bruce Haynes is founding partner emeritus and of counsel to the strategy firm Purple Strategies, with offices in Washington and Chicago. A former chief of staff to former Congressman Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), Haynes is a 30-year veteran of politics, public affairs crisis and corporate reputation management. He has consulted on political campaigns and provides counsel to political figures, Fortune 500 companies, leading trade associations and nonprofit organizations. Follow him on Twitter @BrucePurple.