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 TrumpEx-Melania Trump adviser raised concerns of excessive inauguration spending weeks before events: CNN The Hill's Morning Report - Trump moves green cards, citizenship away from poor, low-skilled White House seeks volunteers, musicians for Christmas celebrations 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 PittengerBottom Line North Carolina reporter says there could be 'new crop' of GOP candidates in 9th Congressional District race North Carolina board calls for new election in contested House race 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.

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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 JonesThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic infighting threatens 2020 unity Heavy loss by female candidate in Republican NC runoff sparks shock Greg Murphy wins GOP primary runoff for North Carolina House seat 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 ClintonTop Sanders adviser: Warren isn't competing for 'same pool of voters' Anti-Trump vets join Steyer group in pressing Democrats to impeach Trump Republicans plot comeback in New Jersey 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 RokitaLobbying world Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations House passes year-end tax package 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 McConnellTrump faces crucial decisions on economy, guns Are Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' 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 TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump 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.