By: Alex Isenstadt
October 21, 2013 05:01 AM EDT
Political handicappers expect Republicans to keep the House in 2014. But plenty of GOP lawmakers will still be slugging it out in tough races next year — they’ll just be hitting one another in a growing number of primaries propelled by the party’s nasty split over the federal shutdown and debt crisis.
Nearly a dozen House Republican incumbents already have credible challengers, and conservative groups expect that number to grow in the coming months as races develop and deadlines approach to qualify for the ballot. The coming fiscal battles — there’s now a Jan. 15 deadline for funding the government and a Feb. 7 deadline to raise the debt ceiling — could add fuel to the primary fires.
Redistricting whittled down the number of competitive House districts and fortified the GOP’s majority. That means much of the action next year will be in primaries, where Republicans will fight out their differences in deeply conservative, gerrymandered districts.
While Democratic incumbents will have a few primaries of their own in 2014, so far nearly all of the intraparty fights are on the Republican side. Many of the races pit tea party-style insurgents against establishment-minded members who are close allies of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) or powerful committee chairmen. In other instances, the establishment — furious over the tea party’s role in the shutdown and debt fights — is turning the tables, finding business-friendly candidates to try to take out conservative incumbents.
In the Senate, the GOP primary field is beginning to solidify, with veterans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander drawing conservative opponents. And last week, state Sen. Chris McDaniel announced he will run against veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran — and the challenger swiftly won endorsements from several right-leaning groups.
“Democrats feel well represented [by their members of Congress]. But there’s a huge sense of disquiet among the base with elected Republicans,” said Daniel Horowitz, policy director for the Madison Project, a conservative group that is supporting several primary challengers to Republican incumbents, including McDaniel. “Like 2010 was the Republican wave, 2014 will be the primary wave. The threat of a primary challenge is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. … I think you’re going to see it everywhere.”
The race currently getting the most attention is in Idaho, where GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, an Appropriations Committee cardinal and Boehner friend, faces a primary against attorney Bryan Smith. The challenger is backed by the Club for Growth, the anti-tax group trying to steer congressional Republicans to the right.
Simpson, who was one of 87 Republicans who supported the bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, is casting himself as a responsible conservative with experience and seniority; Smith calls the incumbent a get-along establishment type who has overstayed his time in Washington.
In recent weeks, the two have skirmished over the shutdown. Smith hammered Simpson for supporting a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government. “After 16 long years in Washington, liberal Congressman Mike Simpson has forgotten our conservative Idaho values,” Smith’s campaign charged in a radio ad.
Simpson shot back in a competing radio ad that highlighted his efforts to defund Obamacare. “Everyone knows that Mike Simpson is a proven conservative Republican,” it declared.
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said the fiscal fights are potent grist for primaries, giving challengers an opening to tap into grass-roots frustration by attacking the party’s approach to fiscal issues as overly accommodating.
“Republicans run on a message of limited government, fiscal responsibility, less debt, more growth, and that’s what these battles are,” he said. “There is a growing sense [among voters] that, ‘You haven’t done these things.’”
Chocola said his group is in the process of examining whether to get involved in other primary races.
Simpson isn’t the only friend of Boehner looking over his shoulder. There is growing talk among conservatives that North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, who was elected in 2010 as an insurgent but who is now seen as a Boehner ally, could be challenged by Chatham County Republican Party Chairman Jim Duncan. Tea party groups have squabbled with Ellmers in recent months after she criticized the conservative group Heritage Action for pressuring House Republicans to take a hard line on Obamacare in the budget fight.
Also in the cross hairs are three committee gavel holders: Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster and Texas Reps. Pete Sessions and Lamar Smith. Shuster, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and is the son of ex-GOP Rep. Bud Shuster, is trying to beat back Art Halvorson, a real estate developer attempting to brand the incumbent as a big-spending liberal. Halvorson has put $100,000 of his own money into the race, and he’s become a favorite of conservatives like RedState founder Erick Erickson.
Win or lose, Halvorson is convinced he’s having an effect. He said in an interview that the presence of conservative-minded primary challengers has pushed Republican leaders to take a harder line on budget matters.
“The government shutdown is happening because guys like me are forcing Mr. Boehner to stand up,” Halvorson said. “I see it as short-term pain for long-term gain. It had to be done.”
Of the 144 House Republicans who opposed the bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling, several — Ellmers, Sessions and Smith — are seen as more aligned with the party establishment. Voting against the legislation could give them some cover against insurgent opponents.
For all the attention the GOP primary fights will receive, unseating an incumbent in a primary is one of the hardest things to do in politics. Only five House Republican members have lost to nonincumbent challengers since 2010.
The conservatives driving the primary challenges are starting to encounter pushback from a lineup of business groups that are unhappy with the tea party’s heightened sway in the House Republican Conference. Simpson has already received backup from the American Chemistry Council, a deep-pocketed Washington-based group that has run TV ads on his behalf. And a spokeswoman for the National Association of Manufacturers said the organization had hosted a fundraiser for Shuster and would be holding one for Simpson, as well.
There is growing talk in the business community about recruiting primary challengers against conservative members driving the GOP’s no-compromise stance on spending, taxes and Obamacare. One target is Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning member who’s trying to fend off a challenge from investment banker Brian Ellis.
The challenger kicked off his campaign two weeks ago, hammering Amash — one of the GOP’s shutdown ringleaders — for adopting what Ellis called a fiercely ideological and anti-business approach.
In an interview, Ellis said House Republicans were “rightly concerned about Obamacare” but added: “I think the bottom line is the government needs to be open, and we don’t want to be messing around with the debt ceiling.”
Amash, he said, is “certainly aligned with the faction that’s taken us down this road.”
In suburban Detroit, meanwhile, the business community has found a favorite in attorney Dave Trott, who’s looking to unseat tea party Rep. Kerry Bentivolio. Touting himself as a “jobs creator,” Trott has won endorsements from many local pols. During the opening month of his campaign, he raised more than $425,000 — a substantial figure for a congressional candidate.
Bentivolio — a quirky freshman House member who once worked as a Santa Claus impersonator and reindeer farmer — shrugged off the challenge.
“I’m a grass-roots conservative,” Bentivolio, who voted against the deal to end the shutdown and increase the debt ceiling, said in an interview. “The establishment is the establishment because they like the way things are.”