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When Fear on the Right Is Trumped by Fear of Self

Ellmers is one of the few members of the House GOP Conference facing a Republican primary. But the party doesn't have much to worry about this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Ellmers is one of the few members of the House GOP Conference facing a Republican primary. But the party has little to worry about. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When they’re not busy raising money off it, House Republicans tend to sound plenty whiny about their stated No. 1 fear: Being successfully challenged from the right in the next primary.

The worry turned out to be way overstated last year, and the early signs are the same will prove true next year.

It’s been conventional wisdom — since the 2010 tea party wave and a round of redistricting that drained more partisan competition than ever from the congressional map — that the biggest political risk a Republican member can take is not acting conservative enough. The majority’s rank and file has spent this decade beseeching leadership to avoid votes that would move the GOP conference toward the center, and not only because of the membership’s collective ideological bent.

The 90 percent whose districts are reliably “red” (meaning no Democrat has a genuine chance in the general election) describe that strategy as the best form of incumbency protection. Feints toward bipartisanship, these members argue, will only create a wave of expensive and divisive intraparty contests with politicians who vow to be even more combatively conservative.

Turns out, the rationalization has not been buttressed by much evidence. In the past two elections, more than 97 percent of House Republicans who ran for re-election won their party’s nomination. And in 2014, it’s arguable that none of the four incumbents ousted by other Republicans was defeated mainly because he was too centrist.

Eric Cantor was upset by Dave Brat in large measure because he took his Virginia seat for granted and came off as more interested in being majority leader than in cosseting his constituents. Ralph M. Hall of Texas could not countermand the reality that he was 91 years old and John Ratcliffe was 48. The personal quirkiness of Michigan’s Kerry Bentivolio, the first former Santa Claus impersonator and reindeer rancher in Congress, was readily exploited by the mainstream Dave Trott. And once Vance McAllister earned his “kissing congressman” moniker, he was easy prey in Louisiana for the likes of straight-laced physician Ralph Abraham.

That history is worth remembering now, as dozens of incumbents file mid-year reports with the Federal Election Commission featuring fundraising and cash-on-hand numbers engineered to scare off all but the most quixotic challenges.

Many more votes will be cast in the House before any state opens its candidacy filing period. But, for those aspirants hoping to knock off an incumbent with a well-funded, well-organized effort (not a stealth campaign), the time for keeping powder dry is getting close to the end.

At the moment, only about half a dozen GOP members already know they will be facing intense challenges to their re-nomination. And only a couple of them are going to have to break a sweat in the primary because they’ve been insufficiently conservative.

The most prominent among them is Rep. Renee Ellmers, normally an ally of leadership, who infuriated social conservatives this winter when she worked to derail legislation that would have banned almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. She also opposed her party’s effort to tie continued government funding to a reversal of Obama administration immigration policies. Jim Duncan, a retired businessman and former county GOP chairman in her central North Carolina district, has announced what could be a serious primary challenge, although radio host Frank Roche, who took 41 percent against her in a gadfly primary bid last year, is trying again and could split the Ellmers antipathy.

The dynamic is different in the state’s Atlantic Coast district, where it’s the GOP establishment talking openly about denying Rep. Walter B. Jones a 12th term. Though he’s as fiscally and socially conservative as anyone in the conference, his skepticism of party orthodoxy on national security and his unpredictable approach in dealing with the leadership prompted him to oppose the party line more than any other Republican last year, according to CQ vote data. Veteran Beltway GOP operative Taylor Griffin came within 2,600 votes of winning the 2014 primary and is running again.

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, very few GOP conservatives are critical of the voting record Rep. Dan Benishek has amassed since his arrival at the Capitol in 2011. But many are furious he’s recently decided not to honor an oft-repeated promise to stay just six years. Grass-roots efforts are underway to recruit another Republican who could enforce the congressman’s term limits pledge, including state Rep. Peter Pettalia and former state Sen. Jason Allen, who lost the primary to Benishek five years ago by just 15 votes. So far neither has said “yes.”

Two other members of the Class of 2010, from neighboring districts in eastern Tennessee, continue to be seen as vulnerable to defeat at the hand of a fellow Republican — in both cases because of their perceived personal shortcomings, not their political positioning.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann has survived three close primaries in a row, prevailing last time by just 1,500 votes, in part because of what even allies describe as an unusual-for-a-politician difficulty forming personal connections with constituents. He’s banked $559,000 because an influential state senator, Bo Watson, is weighing a challenge that could count on solid fundraising and backing from some in the state GOP establishment.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, of course, has something of the opposite problem — a well-documented run of extramarital affairs with hospital co-workers and patients of his medical practice, not to mention urging one girlfriend and his first wife to have abortions. Those disclosures, not his voting record, were why he survived the 2014 primary by just 38 votes. They are also why Grant Starrett, a 27-year-old real estate attorney who worked on both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, has been able to raise $721,000 since announcing his congressional bid just three months ago.

And in New Hampshire, a GOP establishment interested in self-preservation has abandoned Rep. Frank C. Guinta since he conceded in a May settlement with the Federal Election Commission that the $355,000 he reportedly loaned his first congressional campaign was actually money from his parents. Dan Innis, a former University of New Hampshire business school dean, is running again after taking 41 percent against Guinta in the 2014 primary.

The preliminary data is clear: For five of the six GOP members most mentioned these days as being in primary trouble, abiding by conventional wisdom and shoring up their conservative bonafides is not the first priority.

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