The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Tennessee’s governor’s race, Diane Black underscored how unhelpful it is to be a House Republican

Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) in February. (AP)
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Are you a House Republican thinking of running for higher office this year? Maybe think again.

On Thursday, Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) became the fifth Republican lawmaker this primary season to try and fail to leverage her job in Washington for higher office. She lost the Republican nomination for Tennessee’s open governor’s race to a business executive, Bill Lee. That’s despite the fact Black spent millions of her own money, is a powerful member of Congress and had the endorsement of Vice President Pence.

She didn’t have one thing: a Trump endorsement. He stayed out of the race. As The Washington Post’s David Weigel reports, that was the great equalizer. Trump has recently proved how powerful his endorsement can be in GOP politics — a few embarrassing losses in 2017 in Virginia and Alabama notwithstanding.

The vacuum of his endorsement in the gubernatorial race let everyone in the crowded, increasingly competitive primary try to make the case they’re the most Trump-aligned, mostly by jumping to the right on immigration. Trump continues to prove daily that he’s his own unique figure in Republican politics. In this particular race, an endorsement from his No. 2 was not enough to tip the scales for Black.

Perhaps the bigger story than Trump’s endorsement power is the energy he’s whipped up against his own party’s establishment. It’s not a coincidence that in the first election cycle since he became president, promising to “drain the swamp” and decrying the American political system as “rigged” that nearly half a dozen GOP lawmakers have lost their primaries for higher office.

It’s happening in states Trump won in 2016 like Indiana, where Republican voters rejected two members of Congress in one race, and West Virginia and Idaho, where sitting members of Congress failed to get their party’s nomination for senator or governor. And now, Tennessee.

Meanwhile, Trump appears to enjoy playing kingmaker in primaries. But he has shown little regard for making decisions that could help Republicans keep their House majority. He’s doubling down on potentially politically troublesome tariffs and seeming downright giddy for a government shutdown this fall, weeks before the November midterm elections.

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Tennessee is interesting in that it is a state where some of Trump’s popularity may be in flux. Trump won almost every single county in the state in 2016, but a handful of recent polls show his approval rating there at about or slightly above 50 percent.

An open Senate seat there has become competitive for Democrats. Former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen, who won his nomination Thursday, has a decent shot to become the first Democratic senator from Tennessee since the early 1990s. He’ll face off against another member of Congress, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), who won her primary Thursday. (Trump did go to Tennessee to campaign for Blackburn.)

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But had Trump endorsed Black in the governor’s race, it’s possible we wouldn’t be writing this story right now about her loss. There’s plenty of evidence that his supporters there are still loyal. Retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is an on-again, off-again antagonist of the president’s, and an October Middle Tennessee State University poll showed the feud dinged Corker’s popularity back home more than Trump’s.

Black’s primary loss represents the broader ethos in the Republican Party right now, a skepticism of the establishment that has been elevated by Trump himself.

An early conclusion to draw from Black’s loss, among the others, is that it’s more politically dangerous than ever to simply be a Republican member of Congress presenting yourself to a wider pool of voters. Democrats have had their surprises in this vein, too, mostly in the form of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppling Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) in June.

But the anti-establishment energy seems to be most vibrant on the Republican side right now, and soon-to-be former lawmakers like Diane Black probably have Trump to thank for that.