GOP establishment trounces tea party in congressional primaries

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.

Fox national poll: Clinton and Trump in virtual tie in 4-way race

After weeks of slipping in the polls, Donald Trump is narrowing the advantage Hillary Clinton built in the wake of last month’s nominating conventions, a new Fox News poll of registered voters shows.

The poll, released Wednesday evening, shows Clinton with just a 2 percentage point lead, 41 percent to 39 percent, over Trump in a four-way race that also includes Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The former secretary of state’s advantage sits within the poll’s 3-point margin of error, putting her in a statistical tie with her GOP opponent.

Stein was favored by 4 percent of those polled while Johnson polled at 9 percent, 6 points short of the average showing of 15 percent in a set of five polls that he needs to qualify for the upcoming presidential debates. The Fox News poll is one of the five being used as criteria by the Commission on Presidential Debates to determine which candidates qualify.

In a head-to-head matchup between Clinton and Trump, the former secretary of state holds a statistically significant 6 point lead over the Manhattan billionaire, 48 percent to 42 percent among registered voters. That lead is down, however, from the 10-point advantage she held in the Fox News poll’s previous iteration, conducted at the beginning of August after a well-received Democratic National Convention and amid Trump’s feud with the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq in 2004.

In the four-way race, Clinton’s lead among African-Americans polled is 68 percentage points and 15 points among women reached by the poll. Among Hispanic respondents, she leads by 19 points.

White registered voters reached by the poll favored Trump over Clinton by a 13-point margin, the same advantage the Manhattan billionaire held among male respondents. White registered voters without a college degree said they preferred Trump by 23 points, while white evangelical Christians respondents picked Trump by a 55-point margin.

Trump’s favorability rating hit an all-time high in the fresh Fox News poll, climbing to 42 percent, still 2 points short of the 45 percent of respondents who said they had a favorable view of Clinton. 56 percent said they viewed Trump unfavorably, while 53 percent said the same of Clinton.

The Fox News poll was conducted from Aug. 28 to 30 via telephone, reaching 1,011 registered voters nationwide on cellphones and landlines. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Rep. Whitfield will resign following ethics probe

Rep. Ed Whitfield, the Kentucky Republican dogged by ethics problems around “special favors” he granted his lobbyist wife, is resigning from Congress next week.

Whitfield sent a letter to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and House Speaker Paul Ryan announcing his retirement, effective Sept. 6, the day Congress returns from August recess.

“As you know, I did not seek re-election to Congress this year and have now decided to submit my resignation as the congressman of the First District of Kentucky,” Whitfield said in a short, three-paragraph letter sent to Bevin’s office Monday and first reported by the AP.

Bevin said in a statement he will hold a special election on Nov. 8, the same day as the general election, to fill the remaining two months of Whitfield’s term.

Whitfield "has served the people of Kentucky’s first district admirably, and we wish him all the very best in the years ahead" Bevin tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

James Comer, the GOP nominee running for Whitfield’s seat, has already said he plans to run to fill the vacancy.

"I will seek the nomination for the unexpired term of Congressman Whitfield, and fully expect to be on the ballot twice on November 8, once for the unexpired term and once for the full two-year term,” Comer said in a statement.

Whitfield, first elected in 1994, had already planned to retire after this Congress, announcing last year he wouldn’t run for another term amid an ongoing ethics investigation into special access he gave his wife, a lobbyist for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, as she pushed animal welfare legislation dealing with horse shows.

The House Ethics Committee released a scathing report in July that found Whitfield violated House rules by giving his wife “special favors.” But the committee ultimately decided against sanctioning Whitfield, saying he didn’t intentionally violate House rules regarding lobbying by a lawmaker’s spouse.

“Specifically, the Committee finds that Representative Ed Whitfield failed to prohibit lobbying contacts between his staff and his wife, Constance Harriman, and dispensed special privileges to Ms. Harriman,” the panel wrote in its July report, “but that he did not violate the rule against improperly using his position for his own interest.”

The critical report came after more than a yearlong investigation into Whitfield’s actions, first launched after a 2013 POLITICO story investigating his wife’s lobbying.

Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report

Trump’s Mexican adventure

BUILD ON THIS: Standing next to the president of Mexico, DONALD TRUMP said he wanted a cooperative relationship with the U.S.’s southern neighbors, while also insisting America has the right to build a wall along its border with Mexico.

Trump met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto today, ahead of a speech later tonight in Arizona focused on immigration. After meeting, Trump said both leaders “recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier or wall." But, he said, there was no discussion over who would pay for the wall — even as Trump has insisted that Mexico would bear the cost of the structure.

Trump described today’s meeting as “preliminary” and said specifics of financing the wall will come later. “That’ll be for a later date,” Trump said after he and the Mexican president both read aloud prepared remarks. “We’re very well on our way.” Read more at: http://politi.co/2bI12et

Happy Wednesday. Yes, we all wish we could day trip to Mexico. But since you can’t, hey, here’s your 2016 Blast! Henry C. Jackson (@henrycjjackson) is here to guide you through today’s campaign news, so please send your tips, complaints and travel adventures south of the border to: hjackson@politico.com.

2) NOT BUYING: As DONALD TRUMP traveled to Mexico, HILLARY CLINTON ripped his immigration rhetoric and leadership qualities, “launching a barrage of attacks on the Republican presidential nominee. … While Clinton has not accepted the invitation to go south of the border, she stressed that it will take more than a political stunt to compensate for 14 months of the anti-Mexico headlines Trump has generated throughout his presidential campaign.” http://politi.co/2bHISJL

And, as POLITICO’s Gabriel Debenedetti reports, strategists in both parties don’t see Trump’s trip as changing his electoral calculus: “While Trump dashes south to meet with Mexico’s unpopular president — a man with even worse favorability numbers than the GOP nominee — and prepares to deliver a more measured position on border security and immigration, Democrats and Republicans alike dismiss as fantasy any notion that the GOP nominee could boost his margins among Hispanic voters in a significant way.” http://politi.co/2bC48Go

BLAST NOTE: HILLARY CLINTON isn’t buying Trump’s trip to Mexico and neither, it seems, are many Mexicans as POLITICO Nick Gass explains. POLITICO’s Nahal Toosi, meanwhile, parses out what Mexico’s president Peña Nieto in Mexico City is thinking by agreeing to a meeting with Trump.

3) WALLED IN: DONALD TRUMP is expected to chart a more moderate course in an immigration speech later tonight, POLITICO’s Eli Stokols reports, in part because he has no choice if he wants to get elected. Conflicting advice from an array of advisers has led to a “muddle” that requires some clarity. “When DONALD TRUMP walks on stage … Wednesday, he will be guided by anti-immigration zealots to a more moderate-sounding platform, one that represents a pragmatic calculation of his Election Day challenge if not a deeper belief in the unforgiving border policy that won him the Republican nomination.” http://politi.co/2bCAVVO

4) RAISING ARIZONA: Of late, DONALD TRUMP has been spending time in red states like Arizona, where he’ll speak about immigration tonight. And HILLARY CLINTON’s team views this is an important tactical victory, POLITICO’s Gabriel Debenedetti reports. “After weeks of Brooklyn telegraphing a competitive race in traditionally red states and making public moves that look like initial investments — boosting staff, holding fundraisers and promising more investments — Trump is now campaigning in Arizona, which has voted Republican in 15 of the past 16 elections, while his running mate goes to Georgia, a state that’s gone red in seven of the past eight cycles. … In private, members of Clinton’s team draw a direct line between their activity in those states and Trump’s worries there. In public, Democrats are starting to cheer the success.” http://politi.co/2bJOHrC

5) DEBATE PREP: Indiana Gov. MIKE PENCE gave some insights into his debate prep, with the vice presidential debate a little more than a month away. By the sounds of it, he is taking a more conventional approach than DONALD TRUMP: “Asked about his preparations for the Oct. 4 debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, Pence told Fox News radio host Brian Kilmeade that a team is ‘starting to put together the briefing books and I’m starting to bone up on my years in Congress and a lot of the national issues." Pence said "he would ‘have a few mock debates, I expect, along the way,’ in contrast to running mate Donald Trump, who has not ruled out the possibility of the standard preparatory exercise but has registered his disapproval of it.” http://politi.co/2bSpSgp

TRAIL MIX: In today’s campaign news, Wisconsin may be tightening. Transitions makes for awkward neighbors. Julian Assange sounds off. Was MIKE PENCE really needed in Georgia? TIM KAINE raises questions. And HILLARY CLINTON’s campaign saves tweets.

WISCONSIN CHASE: A Monmouth University poll has HILLARY CLINTON’s margin shrinking somewhat against DONALD TRUMP in Wisconsin.

OKIELEEDOKELEY NEIGHBORS: HILLARY CLINTON and DONALD TRUMP’s transition teams are sharing real estate near the White House.

WIKI-BARB: Julian Assange says the American press supports a “demon” in HILLARY CLINTON.

MAYBE SHE’S A PACKER FAN?: Minneapolis’ City Pages explains what HILLARY CLINTON has to do with Minnesota QB Teddy Bridgewater blowing out his knee.

PEACH PITS: The Atlanta-Journal Constitution considers whether MIKE PENCE’s recent trip around Georgia was a bit of a trap.

KAINE-ING HIM: In Pennsylvania, TIM KAINE continued to whack DONALD TRUMP’s for withholiding his taxes and medical records. (Morning Call)

RT=MOCKERY: HILLARY CLINTON’s website used the occasion of DONALD TRUMP’s trip to Mexico to recirculate some of his most aggressive tweets.

THEY SAID IT: "There is no choice: In razor sharp contrast to her opponent, Secretary Clinton is ready, steady and prepared.” — James Clad, former deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, on endorsing HILLARY CLINTON. http://politi.co/2cfbz5b

MAGIC NUMBER: 38. That’s the percentage of voters in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll who have a positive view of HILLARY CLINTON. Just one percentage point more than DONALD TRUMP. http://politi.co/2bRb7WL

FOLLOW @POLITICO’S politics team: @PoliticoCharlie, @POLITICO_Steve, @PoliticoAlex, @anniekarni, @GlennThrush, @EliStokols, @katieglueck, @schreckreports, @gdebenedetti, @Hadas_Gold, @ec_schneider, @kyledcheney , @theodoricmeyer, @MarcACaputo, @PoliticoKevin,@mikeallen, @dlippman, @Danielstrauss4, @henrycjjackson, @shanegoldmacher, @KristinPolitico, @PoliticoScott, @Patrick_C_Reis

There you go — now you’re caught up on the 2016 race. TBNR. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Trump says he and Mexican president ‘didn’t discuss’ who would pay for border wall

Donald Trump said he and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto did not discuss which nation would fund Trump’s proposed multi-billion-dollar border wall when the two met Wednesday.

“Who pays for the wall? We didn’t discuss it,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question at a joint conference following the meeting.

“We did discuss the wall," Trump continued. "We didn’t discuss payment of the wall. That’ll be for a later date. This was a very preliminary meeting. I think it was an excellent meeting.”

Franken apologies for Clinton-Weiner joke

Sen. Al Franken let his comedic past get the better of him on Wednesday, apologizing after joking that an injury to a Minnesota Vikings player was akin to Hillary Clinton having an "affair with Anthony Weiner."

New York Times writer Mark Leibovich tweeted Franken’s (D-Minn.) response to a gruesome leg injury to Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater that shocked onlookers in practice on Tuesday. Leibovich was tailing Franken at the Minnesota State Fair.

"It’s like finding out Hillary’s having an affair with Anthony Weiner," Franken said, according to Leibovich.

The former Saturday Night Live cast member and comedian quickly walked back his remark.

"Pretty insensitive and stupid of me. Regret it and sincerely apologize," Franken said on Twitter.

Trump, in Mexico, insists on America’s right to build a wall

Standing beside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump laid out his vision for a cooperative relationship with America’s southern neighbor, and insisted on America’s right to build a wall along its border with Mexico.

"We recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier or wall," Trump said in a statement that followed a meeting with Peña Nieto. He also said, “I love the United States very much and we want to make sure the people of the United States are very well protected."

The GOP nominee renewed his call for an improved trade deal with Mexico and said NAFTA “has been a far greater benefit to Mexico than it has been to the United States.”

He said the two "didn’t discuss payment of the wall."