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House Republicans Running For Higher Office Are Having A Tough Go Of It

I’ve always felt that Tennessee is among the most politically interesting states. It’s a place where a Republican state Senate elected a Democratic speaker and Democrats in the state House rallied behind a Republican one. The lieutenant governor is chosen by the state Senate, and the attorney general is appointed by the state supreme court. Its non-presidential primary elections — scheduled this year for Aug. 2, which is why I’m harping on this — always take place on a Thursday, and no one seems to knows why. The state of Sen. Bob Corker (estimated net worth:1 $69 million) and Gov. Bill Haslam ($2.5 billion) also seems to attract a lot of moneyed politicians: So far, 11 candidates for Senate, House or governor in Tennessee this year have invested at least $500,000 in their own campaigns.2 And, finally, Tennessee has not one, but two Republican House members whose last names have “Black” in them, and both are leaving to run for higher office this year.

Normally, being a member of Congress gives a candidate a leg up in his or her bid for another elected office, but it hasn’t been the best predictor of success so far this year. Out of nine Republican U.S. House members to appear on a primary ballot as a candidate for another office — in this case, either U.S. senator or governor — since the first primary on March 6, only five have won — and at least three of those five wins3 came against unserious or nonexistent challengers. That’s a worse record than in all but one (2016) of the last nine election cycles, based on all House members I could find who left Congress to run for another office this century.4

It’s getting harder to use the House as a stepping stone

The win-loss record in primaries of Republicans who left their U.S. House seats to run for other offices

Election Cycle Primaries Won Primaries Lost Winning Percentage
2018* 5 4 55.6%
2016 3 3 50.0
2014 7 4 63.6
2012 6 1 85.7
2010 8 5 61.5
2008 3 1 75.0
2006 8 1 88.9
2004 6 2 75.0
2002 10 2 83.3
2000 6 0 100.0

* As of Aug. 1

Sources: Roll Call, Ballotpedia, U.S. House of Representatives, secretaries of state

Tennessee features one example of each of the two general categories that these GOP primaries have fallen into: one in which the representative who is seeking another office is expected to prevail easily over weak opposition and one in which she is in danger of losing, having failed to scare off her strongest challengers.

The first case is the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, in which Rep. Marsha Blackburn is the presumptive GOP nominee. Blackburn can boast both the endorsement of President Trump and a $7.2 million war chest. Her sole primary opponent, Aaron Pettigrew, told me in a brief phone interview that he has raised a total of $225.5 Indeed, Trump may have helped clear the field for her, keeping Corker from running for re-election by declining to give him the presidential endorsement he may have needed to be viable. (Other observers are less convinced of Blackburn’s merits, grumbling that she is too conservative to be electable — Tennessee may be 27 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation,6 but Democrats are likely to pick popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen as their nominee.)

All in all, we’ve seen this movie before in 2018: In North Dakota, Rep. Kevin Cramer entered the Senate race with the White House’s full support, pushing the other major candidates out of the race. In Pennsylvania, Trump endorsed Rep. Lou Barletta for U.S. Senate over a poorly funded state representative. In New Mexico, Rep. Steve Pearce was unopposed in the Republican primary for governor. All three won their primaries with ease.

Rep. Diane Black has not been so lucky in the Republican primary for Tennessee governor. Once the presumed favorite, Black has seen her polling lead evaporate in the face of the $19.4 million of his own money that former state economic development commissioner Randy Boyd invested in his campaign. Black countered with $12.2 million of her own, and the two spent much of the summer nuking each other on TV. A third candidate, businessman Bill Lee, tried to seize the high ground by denouncing the mudslinging and must have been doing something right, as Black and Boyd began to train their fire on him as well. A poll conducted shortly thereafter gave Lee a 6-percentage-point lead. No fewer than four candidates in this primary are self-funding millionaires (Black, Boyd, Lee and state House Speaker Beth Harwell, who is running a close enough fourth to make things interesting.

The campaign echoes other GOP primaries this year in which House members haven’t done so hot. In May’s U.S. Senate primary in Indiana, Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer likewise spent a lot of time attacking each other, and businessman Mike Braun grabbed the nomination from under their noses. But you’d be mistaken to assume that members of Congress are losing because Republican voters are clamoring for Trump-esque business types across the board. In West Virginia, it was Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, not former coal executive Don Blankenship, who dispatched Rep. Evan Jenkins in the U.S. Senate primary. In Idaho, Rep. Raul Labrador lost the gubernatorial primary to Lt. Gov. Brad Little, not real-estate developer Tommy Ahlquist.

If seasoned veterans of state politics are still scoring primary wins, maybe the problem of House members who are seeking higher office is the stink of Washington itself. For what it’s worth, The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert reported that Black entered the campaign well known — and not particularly well liked — because of her experience in Congress, and she was accused of prioritizing federal issues at the expense of state ones. Or maybe, with so many primaries in so many different types of places with so many different sorts of candidates, we were always bound to see a hodgepodge of results.

That said, a key difference between the House members who won their gubernatorial or Senate primaries and those who didn’t is Trump — the president didn’t endorse any of the four congressmen who were defeated. In fact, the one time he did support a House member in a race against a self-funding Trump-like candidate, the House member won: Rep. Jim Renacci beat businessman Mike Gibbons in the U.S. Senate primary in Ohio.

There are signs that the White House is in Black’s corner — Vice President Mike Pence endorsed her last week, for instance — but the outgoing governor has asked that Trump remain neutral in the race. Some Republicans are reportedly worried that Black’s nomination would put the governorship within reach of the Democratic nominee (likely either former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean or state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh). As long as Trump withholds his backing, Black will likely remain a mild underdog in the primary.

In contrast, Trump hasn’t been shy about intervening in one of Tennessee’s U.S. House races. In the 8th Congressional District (R+38), freshman Rep. David Kustoff is facing a stiff primary challenge from radiologist George Flinn, whom Kustoff defeated just 27 percent to 23 percent in a 13-candidate primary in 2016.7 Backed by $3.1 million in loans that he made to his campaign, Flinn has outspent the incumbent 3 to 1, apparently putting enough of a scare into Kustoff that Trump stepped in on Kustoff’s behalf. After the outcome of the GOP gubernatorial race, the big question on Thursday night will be whether Trump’s winning streak in GOP primaries will continue. If not, Kustoff will become the third Republican member of Congress to lose renomination this year.

Finally, Republican primaries will decide the likely next members of Congress in Tennessee’s three open congressional seats — all blood-red in their partisan leans. Republicans in the 2nd District (R+38) will pick a candidate they hope will replace retiring Rep. John Duncan Jr., whose family has represented the area for more than 50 years. Among the candidates hoping to take the seat is Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, who is a titan of local politics (he hasn’t lost a race in 24 years). But state Rep. Jimmy Matlock has Duncan’s endorsement and local name recognition as “the tire guy.” In the 6th District (R+49), the GOP primary will likely boil down to a contest between two self-funders: former state Agriculture Commissioner John Rose and former judge Bob Corlew. And finally, in a House primary next door, intolerant comments about transgender people and Muslims may have doomed Mark Green’s 2017 nomination to be Trump’s secretary of the Army, but they haven’t harmed his candidacy in Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District (R+40), where he is unopposed in the primary.


  1. In 2015.

  2. According to my own analysis of campaign-finance data.

  3. By Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania, Steve Pearce in New Mexico and Kevin Cramer in North Dakota. Jim Renacci in Ohio is kind of an in-between case. Kristi Noem in South Dakota is the one clear exception.

  4. To sniff out every member of Congress who retired to seek another office, I supplemented my own research with Roll Call’s indispensable “casualty lists” of all members who depart a given session of Congress. Here are links for the 2018 cycle, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2008, 2006, 2004, 2002 and 2000. For 2016, no Roll Call list was available, so I consulted Ballotpedia.

  5. When I initially called him, I was greeted by a few strains of “God Bless the U.S.A.” before the call went to voicemail. When he called me back, he politely apologized for not picking up — he is a trucker by profession and had been on the road.

  6. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric: the average difference between how a state or district voted in the past two presidential elections and how the country voted overall, with 2016 results weighted 75 percent and 2012 results weighted 25 percent.

  7. Another unusual thing about Tennessee: It’s one of the only Southern states that doesn’t hold runoff elections. If it did, Flinn very well may have defeated Kustoff two years ago.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.