Republicans in the House of Representatives have such low approval ratings, according to recent polls, that a Democratic takeover looks possible. But before Republicans can defend their majority, they first must stave off a slew of primary challengers who are targeting incumbent members of Congress.
The new spate of primaries mostly target those Republicans who failed to toe the Tea Party line during the recent budget standoff, voting to open up the government and raise the debt ceiling. But the challenges are by no means limited to the crew of moderates. Even House Speaker John Boehner is not immune.
On the day the government shutdown began, J.D. Winteregg, a high school French teacher and founder of a group called The Ohio Accountability Project, announced a primary run against Boehner. The campaign will, at the very least, give a place for grassroots Republicans to vent their outrage against the GOP leadership while waiting for polls to open.
In an interview, Winteregg said his campaign sends a message “that no one is safe.”
And momentum for his run, he said, has been growing in the wake of Boehner’s budget capitulation in Washington.
“It was an incremental retreat with nothing to show for it. It was clear that he didn’t have an intention to stand firm,” Winteregg said. “I work with high school kids. If you draw a line, you have to stick to it. Otherwise the kids will walk all over you.”
In North Carolina, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to President George W. Bush, also announced his bid for Congress just as the government shut down. Griffin is running against Rep. Walter Jones, an antiwar former Democrat who was ranked by National Journal as the House’s most liberal Republican in 2011. Jones voted the conservative line on the most recent rounds of fiscal negotiations, but Griffin said those votes were largely symbolic. The challenger added the fiscal skirmishes left him “frustrated with how broken things had become, and I thought my congressman was part of the problem.”
“I think people are angry,” Griffin continued, “and I think that anger is being channeled by Obamacare, which is by all accounts a disaster. It’s being channeled with the frustration of Washington to actually accomplish the things people in this district think should be accomplished.”
Jones has represented North Carolina’s 3rd District, which covers much of the eastern part of the state, since 1995, and has faced primary challenges often. Because of the Republican tilt of the district, challengers do not have to worry much about a bloody primary weakening the winner for the general election.
“Incumbents are supposed to face difficult election challenges every two years,” Griffin said. “We need to have a discussion about Congressman Jones’s record, and people need to know that record and have an alternative if they don’t agree with that record.”
It remains to be seen whether these races will bring out the full firepower of the conservative financial and grassroots army. Often outsiders have bested incumbent and establishment picks only after groups such as FreedomWorks, Heritage Action, Club for Growth, and the Tea Party Express have gotten involved in a big way. Two top Tea Party leaders told The Daily Beast that they were mostly staying out of congressional intra-party squabbles, focusing their efforts instead on senators such as Lindsey Graham and trying to pick up Democratic seats elsewhere.
One Republican who has however gathered outside support is Bryan Smith, an Idaho lawyer who is challenging eight-term Rep. Mike Simpson. Smith is the beneficiary of an online poll the Club for Growth launched at the website primarymycongressman.com. Simpson was the winner—or loser, as it were—and Smith now has not just the Club but also FreedomWorks and the Madison Project backing him.
Smith hammered Simpson for weeks leading up to the budget standoff, and after the congressman eventually voted with the Democrats, said in a statement: “Last night, Congressman Simpson voted to kick the can down the road instead of fighting for cuts in spending and making any major changes to Obamacare. Idaho needs a congressman that will stand up and be courageous for them in Washington.”
But in a sign of the topsy-turvy election season, some of the primary challenges are breaking from the usual script of conservative challenger versus establishment favorite. In Illinois, one-term Rep. Rodney Davis, a moderate, is facing a primary challenge from Erika Harold, a former Miss America who struggled in an interview with National Review to name an issue on which she disagrees with her opponent and who may tack even closer to the center than her opponent (To wit, Harold has kind words for President Obama, a no-no in most Tea Party-infused primaries.) And in Michigan, Rep. Justin Amash, one of the leaders of the “Shutdown Caucus,” is facing a primary challenge as state business groups worry his stance is bad for the economy.
And if further proof was needed for the old adage about all politics being local, some of the GOP’s loudest voices against the Tea Party appear prepared to skate through primary season. Rep. Peter King of New York, who recently called for a Republican war against Sen. Ted Cruz, has yet to see a serious challenger emerge.
“I am very upset that he is going with the arm of the party that is basically lying to its constituents,” said Catherine Tenek, a local Tea Party leader on Long Island.
And in Pennsylvania, Rep. Charlie Dent, a proud moderate who warned his Republican colleagues against shutting down the government and using the debt ceiling as leverage, also appears to have an easy path to the nomination.
Mat Benol, a local lawmaker who came out of the Tea Party movement to challenge Dent in 2012, has since been redistricted out of a seat and said he didn’t see anyone on the horizon to mount the kind of campaign he did.
“I don’t think there are any grumblings,” Benol said. “It is what it is. He’s got a big following. You look at the bankroll, I don’t think there are any grassroots groups that are going to come along and beat him. You have to say that Charlie is pretty safe.”