It turns out the ultimate year of the outsider is pretty much limited to Donald Trump.
Establishment-aligned GOP primary candidates for Congress beat conservative challengers this summer in just about every major match-up, a stark reversal of the dynamic that’s driven Republican politics since 2010.
Tea party-candidates failed to take out a single GOP incumbent this year; among the higher-profile targets who survived were Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and Reps. John Shimkus (Ill.) and Bill Shuster (Pa).
More glaring, given the difficulty of toppling an incumbent, was the inability of conservatives groups like the Club for Growth and Senate Conservative Fund to capture more than a handful of open seats, as conservative candidates who pledged to vote with the far-right House Freedom Caucus fell to contenders backed by mainstream Republican groups, including two in Arizona and Florida on Tuesday.
The results upended recent GOP primary history, in which establishment candidates have consistently been on defense trying to shield incumbents from challengers to their right. This year, establishment-aligned groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined with Joe Ricketts’ “Ending Spending” group (which has also backed more conservative candidates in the past) to not only fend off challengers but proactively target seats.
Indeed, aside from its spectacular failure to stop Trump from winning the nomination, the Republican establishment is having a very good year.
Its biggest success was picking off Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), a prominent member of the House Freedom Caucus who was backed by the Club, Freedom Works and the House Liberty Project in one of the most closely-watched primaries this election cycle.
Some Republicans attribute the success to catching conservatives by surprise. Some of these establishment-allied groups rarely played in open-seat primaries before, let alone try to oust a sitting conservative like Huelskamp. By the time the Kansas Republican realized he was in trouble, it was too late.
“What was once a relatively clear playing field for groups like the Club for Growth has now become more and more crowded because [establishment groups] are beginning to contest them in places that that were never seen as a worthy investment for the general election,” said GOP campaign strategist Brian Walsh. “The conservative groups are now losing. Since June in almost every single place they have been challenged, they have lost.”
Establishment backers also say their candidates’ message — governing with conservative values to deliver for their districts, instead of contributing to D.C. gridlock — has broken through. Physician Roger Marshall defeated Huelskamp, who lost his critical seat on the agriculture committee after obstructing Republican leaders too many times, on that platform.
“The lesson is that local beats national, and good candidates who focus on governing win elections,” said the Chamber’s political director Rob Engstrom, who played a key role in the Kansas race. “Instead of getting in the boat and rowing, and pushing back against President Obama, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, some candidates chose to … only say ‘no’ to everything and marginalize themselves. Voters want candidates who represent their districts and who are proposing real solutions.”
Arizona Sen. John McCain appeared ripe for the picking last year, when a Public Policy Polling survey found that half of the state’s GOP primary voters disapproved of his job performance. But McCain easily held off Kelli Ward, despite a last-minute influx of cash from a super PAC funded by mega-donor Robert Mercer. It wasn’t enough to counter McCain’s reinforcements: Arizona Grassroots Action PAC, run by McCain’s former presidential aides, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dumped nearly $4 million on the race.
Three other House incumbents fought off well-funded primary challengers, too. In downstate Illinois, Rep. John Shimkus beat state senator Kyle McCarter, the incumbent’s first credible primary challenger since he was first elected in 1996. McCarter, who accused Shimkus of being a “cushy careerist,” picked up the Club for Growth backing, which spent $345,000 boosting the insurgent candidate. But American Action Network, aligned with House leadership, helped the 10-term incumbent with a late TV buy, dumping more than $600,000 into the race.
Establishment groups aligned with House leaderhsip, including Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network, also aided Pennsylvania Reps. Bill Shuster (Pa.) and Kevin Brady (Texas). Both lawmakers beat back Tea Party-backed candidates, though neither primary challenger drew outside spending from major national groups on their behalf.
The same pattern extended to open seats, where conservatives groups devoted most of their money. They had some early success, replacing their loathed nemesis ex-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) with one of their own in March. That candidate, Warren Davidson, promptly joined the House Freedom Caucus after his special election victory in early June.
That race alarmed the establishment, insiders say.
"The Boehner seat loss was a siren to mainstream Republicans on what happens when they don’t fight to win,” said one national Republican operative. “This wake-up call got more mainstream Republicans to take the gloves off and start punching their weight to a winning record.”
After that, it was all downhill for conservatives.
With the help of $1.2 million from the Chamber and Ending Spending, public stumping with retiring Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and private fundraising by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson defeated conservative Mike Crane for Westmoreland’s open House seat. The Club had poured in $800,000.
In Indiana, GOP establishment-backed Rep. Todd Young, a leadership-loyal Ways and Means member, crushed the Club- and Senate Conservative Fund-backed Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Freedom Caucus member. The Chamber spent $1 million and establishment-aligned Senate Leadership Fund more than $700,000 for Young.
"That was expected to be the marquee ‘establishment vs. conservative group battle,’ and it turned out to be a dud, which doesn’t say a lot for them because they propped that up,” Walsh said, referring to the conservative outside groups.
The establishment wins piled up from there, including two more on Tuesday. In the Florida Panhandle, establishment candidate Neal Dunn, a doctor, narrowly defeated Mary Thomas, an attorney who pledged to join the Freedom Caucus. That was despite more than $700,000 that the Club, Senate Conservative Action and Senate Conservative Fund spent in recent weeks. Ending Spending countered with $200,000 and Right Way super PAC, another establishment-aligned group, with $270,000.
In Arizona, meanwhile, retiring Freedom Caucus member Matt Salmon (R) endorsed Andy Biggs to be his successor. But Biggs narrowly lost to self-funded millionaire Christine Jones, even though he was backed by the Freedom Caucus from the beginning and $600,000 in support from the Club for Growth.
Conservatives did notch some victories aside from their win in Boehner’s district. In Indiana, Jim Banks won a primary with the help of the Club and the Freedom Caucus’s political arm, the House Freedom Fund. And in North Carolina, those two groups backed farmer and gun-shop owner Ted Budd, who emerged from a crowded primary.
"The Club’s PACs ended [Rep.] Renee Ellmers’ time in the House, filled Boehner’s old seat with a solid pro-growth businessman and won large multi-candidate races in Indiana and North Carolina," said Club spokesman Doug Sachtelben. "Those are all big gains at a time when Kevin McCarthy and the Washington establishment are spending big money to elect more squishes." Ellmers lost her North Carolina seat to another sitting congressman, George Holding.
The establishment, however, didn’t get very involved in any of those races.