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Thursday, January 29, 2015
The Tea Party Is Back, Threatening The GOP With Chaos
They're back! The new tea party surge
House and Senate Republicans are already facing primary threats.
Congress hasn’t even been in session a month and a raft of Republicans are already being threatened with primaries in 2016.
The reasons run the gamut, from backing John Boehner for speaker to objecting to an anti-abortion bill. One congressman is under fire for failing to amass clout that would help his district on a key issue. It’s the latest proof that divisions within the GOP are very much alive, despite the triumph of the establishment GOP wing over the tea party in last year’s midterms.
Since the new Congress kicked off Jan. 6, more than a half-dozen Republican congressmen and senators have drawn potential challengers from the right – an unusual level of intra-party electoral strife this early in the campaign season. Many of the incumbents have reputations as solid conservatives – lawmakers like North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, who was elected on the tea party wave of 2010, and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, who oversaw the party’s Senate campaign arm in the midterms — but have nonetheless drawn the ire of tea party adversaries.
A few of the potential challengers are mulling repeat bids after losing in 2014, betting that growing voter discontent with incumbents will put them over the top in two years. Many of the primary campaigns are almost certain to fizzle once the reality of what it takes to dethrone a sitting lawmaker sets in. Regardless, it’s a rude awakening for a Republican establishment that hoped it had put insurgent challenges to rest.
“There is an unprecedented level of disquiet,” said Daniel Horowitz, who has worked as a political strategist for tea party groups. “There’s a sense that the Republicans in Washington don’t share the beliefs of the conservative platform, or don’t fight for them.”
Democrats have comparatively fewer divisions, despite being in the minority in both chambers of Congress. In party circles, there’s little talk about primaries.
The most serious potential Republican primary race is in North Carolina, where Ellmers has come under ferocious criticism on an issue of central importance to conservatives: abortion. Jim Duncan, chairman of the Chatham County Republican Party, is said to be considering challenging Ellmers following her successful push to stop the passage of an anti-abortion bill that she criticized as too stringent. It required a rape victim to report an assault to authorities in order to qualify for an exemption from the bill’s restrictions on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The problem for others is their perceived closeness with Republican leaders deemed too moderate by tea party activists. After Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, a sophomore, cast his vote for Boehner, a local radio host named Al Gainey said he was considering a primary campaign. The same goes for Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster, the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who also backed Boehner for another term as speaker. Within days, Art Halvorson, a wealthy real estate developer, and Travis Schooley, an Army veteran, said they were weighing rematches against Shuster after falling short against him in 2014.
“Bill picks party over principle,” Schooley said. “He’s in Boehner and Co.”
A Shuster spokesman, Sean Joyce, brushed off the criticism, saying that the congressman “is focused on the job the people of Central and Southwestern Pennsylvania sent him to Washington to do.”
The rap on Texas Rep. Randy Neugebauer: He’s just not getting the job done. Neugebauer’s prospective opponent, Lubbock Mayor Glen Robertson, has criticized the six-term congressman for not being a forceful enough voice for the West Texas cotton industry. Robertson has attacked Neugebauer for lacking a sufficiently senior position on the influential Agriculture Committee.
“I am giving serious consideration to running for Congress,” Robertson wrote in an email, “and feel that it is critical that District 19 find effective leadership for the future of our district.”
The challengers say they’re getting started early out of necessity. David Gerson, a 47-year-old engineer who has already launched a primary campaign against GOP Rep. John Kline, said he hoped to give himself a head start on raising money — something he struggled to do in his unsuccessful 2014 campaign against the seven-term incumbent.
“Quite frankly, we have a much bigger challenge as someone running in a primary,” he said. As in his last campaign, Gerson is criticizing Kline as insufficiently conservative on federal spending.
On the other side of the Capitol, several senators are also facing the prospect of primary campaigns. Milton Wolf, a conservative Kansas physician who lost a bid against GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, recently took to Twitter to criticize Moran, the state’s other senator. That led some people in the state to speculate about another primary face-off. In Arizona, there is persistent talk that GOP Sen. John McCain, who has long faced opposition from the tea party wing, will have a challenge.
As in previous years, some of the tea party candidates are likely to find a well of support from the Club for Growth, the Washington -based anti-tax group that has often backed conservative hopefuls against sitting Republican incumbents. A spokesman for the group, Barney Keller, said it had made no decisions on whether to back prospective primary challengers.
“When there is an actual race between two or more candidates, we go through our normal process of deciding whether or not to get involved,” Keller said.
For all the advantages they have, incumbents learned a valuable lesson from former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss last year to an underfunded and virtually unknown challenger: Primaries can’t be taken for granted. Top GOP strategists say they’re preparing more intensely than ever for the primary season. And they’re bracing for more Republican challengers to step forward.
“If we thought 2012 and 2014 were busy election cycles, 2016 is going to be even more intense,” said John McLaughlin, a veteran GOP pollster who worked for Cantor.
Regardless of how serious the primary candidates are, their presence could affect what Republicans achieve legislatively. Many in the party want to pass immigration reform, believing that it would help the party woo critical Hispanic voters in the presidential race. But supporting an overhaul may be difficult for members facing the specter of challenges from the right.
Erick Erickson, an influential tea party leader and conservative commentator, said the House GOP’s decision to reelect Boehner as speaker had sparked initial conversations among conservative activists about launching primaries. Those talks, he said, inevitably will become louder in the months to come, as the newly empowered Republican majority faces tough calls on legislation.
“Right now,” he said, “it’s just a simmering under the surface.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated how long Georgia Rep. Doug Collins has been serving in House. He is a sophomore, not a freshman.