It is well known that dissatisfied and angry Republicans were instrumental in fueling Donald Trump’s rise during the primary. The media has given this narrative no end of attention. Charlie Cook, over at the National Journal found that among NBC exit polls of GOP primary results the top 16 states reporting voters “feeling betrayed” by their leaders was over 50 percent. Now, I am not here to debate Cook. But there is some startling evidence to suggest that despite GOP voters feeling betrayed by their leaders in DC they sure don’t mind their leaders in their states.
It is one of the most underreported stories of this cycle but GOP Senators running for reelection in their primaries have had a startlingly easy go of it. Every GOP Senate incumbent, despite running among a supposedly deeply “betrayed” electorate has cruised to reelection. And not just cruised but coasted.
Consider the graphic above. Not a single Republican Senator won less than 60 percent of their primary vote (excluding Arizona where McCain won 55 percent according to unofficial results). Many did this in states where Donald Trump cruised to victory which means Trump voters actually backed incumbents.
This is quite a sea-change from just two years ago when Thad Cochran (MS), Pat Roberts (KS) and Mitch McConnell (KY) had to fight tooth and nail to win their primaries. Four years ago we saw former Senator Richard Lugar (IN) do down to defeat by almost 20 points. In 2010, we saw Lisa Murkowski and Bob Bennett be ousted in their primaries (Murkowksi won as a write-in and stayed a Republican). More importantly in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware the GOP saw their preferred candidates go down to defeat and the party lost all three of those Senate races that year.
This year, a total of 21 GOP Senators have run for reelection (including AZ and FL). If you exclude AZ and FL and the nine contests where GOP incumbents ran unopposed the incumbents averaged 74 percent of the vote and a 54 percent margin of victory. Only Kelly Ayotte in NH faces a primary on September 13 and she is expected to continue the trend.
So what has changed from the last four years? It is true that GOP incumbents have overwhelmed inferior and no-name candidates this cycle but keep in mind in 2014 Milton Wolf in Kansas and state representative Joe Carr in Tennessee were no-names and they both won 40 percent of the primary vote.
The NRSC deserves some credit here for getting some top-tier names to not challenge incumbents. For example, the NRSC was able to keep long-time Congressmen from jumping into the Florida contest which effectively cleared the field for Rubio. In Ohio, despite claims that Portman’s support of gay marriage would lead to a primary challenge the NRSC went to work making sure one did not occur.
Outside groups have also been much more silent this cycle. The Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, for example, spent millions over the last four years challenging establishment favorites and incumbents. This cycle, they have actually spent more supporting than opposing incumbents.
Regardless, with every Senate primary minus New Hampshire’s out of the way many GOP incumbents and the NRSC can focus on their very difficult reelections.