Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho) won his first congressional race as an outsider promising to shake up Washington, and he has spent the past eight years demanding conservative purity of Republican leaders.
But voters rejected his bid Tuesday for the Republican nomination in the governor’s race, choosing instead a politician who had spent his career in Idaho. A super PAC backing another opponent in the primary had run an ad targeting Labrador’s record: “All those years in Washington and nothing to show for it,” the narrator said.
The week before Labrador lost, three other House Republicans were rejected by voters in their bids for statewide office. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer finished a distant second and third to Mike Braun, a former Democrat who ran as the true outsider for a Senate seat from Indiana, and Rep. Evan Jenkins of West Virginia lost to the state’s attorney general even after avoiding any mention of his House service in ads in his run for Senate.
For Republican primary voters, candidates who are trying to move on from the House have two major obstacles to overcome: Not only are they part of what President Trump derides as the “swamp,” but they’re also not getting enough done to support his agenda.
The best way to overcome these twin objections seems to be a nod from the president himself. House Republicans were quick to point out that two of their own won nominations to Senate races in Ohio and Pennsylvania, after forceful presidential endorsements. While Trump didn’t endorse in Idaho, West Virginia or Indiana, he used a stop in Ohio just days before the primary to urge support for Rep. James B. Renacci and recorded a robo-call aimed at Republican voters in Pennsylvania for Rep. Lou Barletta.
Still, some Republicans found their tallies in the primary contests somewhat underwhelming. Renacci received just 47 percent of the vote last week, while Barletta got 63 percent in his race. Renacci and Barletta now head into Senate races as slight underdogs against, respectively, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
Some House veterans acknowledge that it can be difficult to make the shift from running in a single district to going statewide. That can be especially true in large states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Renacci and Barletta now must build a name brand.
“The bigger the state, the harder it is,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-
Calif.). Plus, McCarthy said, House members have years of votes in Congress that opponents can cherry-pick for negative ads.
“When you’re elected, you have a record, too,” he said.
That’s why Barletta had to spend $2 million just to make sure he won the primary against state Rep. Jim Christiana, 35, who spent less than $300,000 and had no notable endorsements.
“Combined, we’ve given Lou Barletta and Robert P. Casey Jr. 20 years to fix it, and they’ve made it worse,” Christiana said in a campaign promotional video, accusing the Republican congressman of being a career politician. “It’s him or me. It’s a name from the past or a candidate for the future.”
In some statewide races, the party managed to clear the field of challengers — including for the Senate bids of Reps. Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee and Kevin Cramer in North Dakota.
But other Republican House members, including gubernatorial hopefuls Diane Black in Tennessee, Ron DeSantis in Florida and Kristi L. Noem in South Dakota, plus Martha McSally in the Arizona Senate race, face statewide primaries over the next several months.
In Tennessee, Black is doing her best to position herself as a Trump disciple. Her website features a New York Post story about her support of the president, headlined “Lady & the Trump.”
Embracing the president doesn’t necessarily protect a member of Congress from a steady dose of anti-Washington venom, however.
In Indiana, Rokita and Messer entered the Senate race as clear favorites. What did they do next? “Shot each other in the head,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
They ran brutal attack ads against each other, both trying to claim the outsider mantle despite a combined 13 years of service in Washington.
Braun, a former state legislator, came into the race and blew them both up as Washington insiders. In a now-famous ad, he took cardboard cutouts of Messer, 49, and Rokita, 48, who are about the same size, and asked Hoosiers whether there was any difference between the two congressmen. Braun defeated each congressman by more than 10 percentage points.
“A pretty good ad, I guess, a pretty, kind of, interesting ad,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday.
Jordan was still grappling with his friend Labrador’s defeat in Idaho’s primary, figuring that he got vastly outspent.
But part of the reason was the time and resources devoted to being on defense. Labrador had to argue both that he blocked legislation that wasn’t conservative enough and that he got things done in Washington. Responding to the ad claiming he had “nothing” to show for his House tenure, Labrador aired a radio ad explaining he has passed several laws.
“Stop the lies now,” the narrator said.