Republican congressmen are retiring in near-record numbers, and those who are sticking around are facing the prospects of a blue wave this fall. But the House isn’t the only place where Republicans are struggling. They’re also faring remarkably poorly this year in their bids for higher office.
On Tuesday night, Rep. Raúl Labrador lost his campaign to become the Republican nominee for governor of Idaho, making him the fourth sitting GOP congressman to lose a gubernatorial or Senate primary in the first 10 state primaries of the year. The four-term congressman had built a national reputation as a conservative firebrand, with the kind of right-leaning profile that would seem to appeal to a restive base of primary voters. Labrador was the co-founder of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus and had the endorsement of Sen. Ted Cruz. But on Tuesday, he came up 5 percentage points short of Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who has served as outgoing-Gov. Butch Otter’s No. 2 for the past eight years.
Labrador won’t have any trouble finding someone to commiserate with during his final months on Capitol Hill. Three of his fellow Republican colleagues had their dreams of a promotion to the Senate dashed just last week: Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer both fell in Indiana to a wealthy businessman running as an outsider candidate, and Rep. Evan Jenkins went down in West Virginia to the state’s attorney general. Like Labrador, all three abandoned their House reelection efforts in hopes of something bigger. Like Labrador, all three will now be out in the cold—or, more likely, in a warm K Street office—when the new Congress is sworn in next year.
The early losses are another troubling trend for the GOP, which is betting on House Republicans to win a half-dozen key statewide races this fall at the same time the president has made Washington an even dirtier word among conservatives than it already was. Despite his dismal overall approval rating, Trump still has wide support among Republican voters. The same can’t be said for House Republicans, who Trump regularly bashes when it suits him.
That’s a problem for the Republican Party. Four congressional Republicans are currently running for governor, two of which non-partisan handicappers believe have, at best, even odds of preserving GOP control in those states. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are betting on a handful of House Republicans to win high-profile races that could decide control of the upper chamber in November.
Two of those—Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta and Ohio Rep. Jim Renacci—have already won their respective primaries. But neither man did so all that resoundingly, despite having the full backing of Donald Trump and going up against little-known challengers. Both Barletta and Renacci will now enter the general as underdogs against politically savvy incumbents.
In North Dakota, Republicans have recruited Rep. Kevin Cramer to challenge Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. In Tennessee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn is the presumptive GOP nominee to replace retiring-GOP Sen. Bob Corker. And in Arizona, Rep. Martha McSally is the establishment pick in a heated battle for the chance to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.
It’s McSally that Republicans should be the most terrified about given how her fellow House Republicans have fared in statewide primaries this year. She’s up against two hard-liners in former state Sen. Kelli Ward and disgraced former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, either of which could tank the party’s chances in the state this November. Even if she survives that bruising primary, McSally’s likely to enter the general wounded against a Democratic congresswoman who’s already leading in head-to-head polling.
Republicans voters could very well rally around a House Republican once he or she becomes a Senate nominee, especially when they’re up against a sitting Democratic lawmaker. But given how close those races are expected to be, even the slightest extra headwind could prove decisive.
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