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GOP Opposition to Trump Could Spark 2018 Primary Challenges

Conservative Trump supporters have already targeted Martha Roby and Jeff Flake

Alabama Rep. Martha Roby won her safe GOP seat by just 9 points in large part because of a write-in campaign inspired by her opposition to Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Alabama Rep. Martha Roby won her safe GOP seat by just 9 points in large part because of a write-in campaign inspired by her opposition to Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Alabama Rep. Martha Roby was projected to easily win a fourth term in her safe Republican district Tuesday. She did win — and comfortably. Just not by Alabama standards. 

Roby carried less than 50 percent of the vote in the state’s 2nd District, defeating Democratic state Rep. Nathan Mathis by just 9 points. All the other Republican members of the Alabama delegation either won their districts by more than 30 points or ran uncontested. Both Sen. Richard C. Shelby and President-elect Donald Trump carried the state by nearly 30 points. 

What was different in Roby’s case was a write-in campaign, provoked by her last-minute disavowal of Trump, that received 11 percent of the vote.

After the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, Roby called on Trump to step aside as the GOP presidential nominee, and later suggested the party could replace him with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. 

The backlash was immediate. The Pike County Republican Women disinvited the congresswoman from speaking at their event. 

Roby already overcame a challenge from the right this year, when she faced local tea party leader Becky Gerritson in the GOP primary. There was concern heading into Super Tuesday that having Alabama’s presidential and congressional primaries on the same day would hurt Roby if the presidential race drove up conservative turnout. But the three-term congresswoman ended up winning that primary by nearly 40 points

Tuesday’s write-in votes hadn’t been tallied as of the end of last week. But Gerritson may end up being the name many 2nd District voters penciled in. Her supporters rallied around her after Roby withdrew her support for Trump. 

On a Facebook page her supporters created for the campaign, Gerritson left this message: “Pray for Martha (for real) that she would take this wake-up call to heart and be a better listener to her constituents.”

GOP operatives say it’s too early to tell whether frustration with Roby for bucking Trump could translate into a primary threat for 2018. For one thing, it’s not yet clear how Trump performed in Roby’s district. Presidential results by congressional district haven’t been calculated yet.

And a lot will depend on how the president-elect chooses to work with House Republicans and whether his critics warm up to him once he’s in the Oval Office.

Since Trump’s surprising victory, some of his congressional GOP critics have sounded a conciliatory tone. That includes Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, whose opposition to Trump has already earned him a 2018 primary challenger. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward, a Trump enthusiast who lost a primary bid to Sen. John McCain this year, announced even before the election that she will challenge Flake in two years.

Flake signaled a willingness to work with Trump and praised the tone of his victory speech. “I’ll work with him when we need to but also push back when I need to,” Flake told Politico last week, dismissing concerns about his opposition to Trump hurting him in the future.  

One incoming GOP member of Congress may already have a primary threat on his hands. Rep.-elect Roger Marshall defeated Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp in a primary this summer.

But Huelskamp has already filed with the FEC to run in Kansas’ 1st District in 2018. During the primary this year, both Huelskamp and Marshall said they supported Trump in the general election. Although Huelskamp, an original supporter of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, seemed less inclined to give Trump a pass when he debated Marshall in June. 

“One thing to know about Tim Huelskamp is I have conservative principles, and I’m going to stand on those conservative principles. If you don’t have conservative principles, I will work against you,” the congressman said

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