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Is Trump Capable of Picking Primary Fights With Incumbents?

Threats could embolden House hard-liners, Republicans say

President Donald Trump has tweeted about challenging members of the House Freedom Caucus, led by North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump has tweeted about challenging members of the House Freedom Caucus, led by North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There are primary threats, and then there are primaries.

President Donald Trump’s tweets last week calling for House Freedom Caucus members to be challenged have left the political class scratching its head and pondering alliances that defy conventional logic.

Could the president actually sponsor internecine battles and bring more firepower than simply 140 characters? Or will last weekend’s tweet about “love and strength” in the party, followed by revived talk of repeal and replace legislation, and a Tuesday phone call with House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, put to rest — for now — the specter of Republican conference divisions being laid bare at the ballot box?

For starters, there’s doubt among GOP consultants from across the spectrum, both in Washington, and in states Freedom Caucus members call home, that Trump could — on his own — take out any individual member. 

“It would require a lot of time and energy on his part,” said one Ohio-based Republican consultant, who predicted that any Freedom Caucus member who falls in a primary would likely lose because of personal or local issues — not because of Trump.

Back in early January, Trump picked up the phone to meddle in Ohio GOP politics, helping to oust the party chairman, an ally of the state’s Republican Gov. John Kasich. But the governor had rankled Trump many times. Besides, not yet president and with presumably more time on his hands, Trump didn’t have to do as much to influence the chairman election as he would’ve had to in a congressional primary. The new chairwoman was chosen by 66 members of the party’s central committee. By contrast, about 300,000 people voted in Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan’s 4th District last fall. The former Freedom Caucus chairman didn’t face a primary.

Trump has ample time to tweet, but that’s probably not enough to scare members, Republicans say. He tweeted positively about House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s primary challenger last year, but Paul Nehlen finished with a mere 16 percent of the vote. Freedom Caucus members don’t sound intimidated either.

“I don’t know if just the president using the bullhorn in and of itself will make the difference,” said one GOP operative from a conservative outside group. “But if you can come in with bigger firepower in terms of financial backing …” 

Who has the juice?

Then the question becomes what outside groups would offer that kind of ammunition and what conditions would make make members vulnerable.

Ryan “would have to humble” Freedom Caucus members, said the Ohio consultant, meaning he would have to strip them of their committee assignments the way former Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp was kicked off the Agriculture Committee in 2012. Establishment groups such as Ending Spending Action Fund worked to defeat Huelskamp in last year’s primary.

“And then Trump would have to go in with the chamber,” the operative added.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported GOP leadership’s health care plan and planned to key vote it. The business group might be happy to take out some anti-trade members, but an electoral alliance with Trump, whom the chamber attacked during the presidential campaign, is harder to imagine. Trump adviser Steve Bannon has reportedly touted the chamber’s declining political clout.  

Establishment groups could seize the opportunity, and put aside their ideological differences with Trump, to defeat members they view as obstructionist.

In today’s political order, the establishment versus nonestablishment dichotomy no longer holds, said one North Carolina Republican consultant. “It’s the difference between those with power and those without power — or who want power,” he said. 

American Action Network, the advocacy group backed by GOP leadership, spent money pressuring Freedom Caucus members to vote with Trump on the health care plan. Its affiliated super PAC doesn’t play in primaries but it has already pulled its staff out of Iowa’s 3rd District where Republican Rep. David Young, not a caucus member, opposed the legislation. The super PAC spent $2 million in his district last cycle.

The National Republican Congressional Committee’s job is to protect incumbents in general elections, but Freedom Caucus members who bucked leadership haven’t always benefited.

The committee hasn’t played in primaries in the past, but this year, the Primary Patriot Program will offer assistance to incumbents who can prove they’re facing a legitimate threat. Eligibility is based on payment of dues, which suggests a dues-paying Freedom Caucus member could conceivably receive NRCC help while being attacked by a pro-Trump group.

It’s unclear whether there’s a will among Trump donors to pony up money for taking on Republican incumbents, whether it’s Freedom Caucus members or Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump critic who will likely face a Trump supporter in his primary next year.

So far, the web of outside groups allied with the administration has targeted their pro-Trump messaging, much of it focused on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, to states with Democratic senators up for re-election next year. None of the four main pro-Trump outside groups have taken on GOP members, yet.

Not to be taken lightly 

But even if the president’s tweets represent the only public evidence of a primary threat against these members, Republicans cautioned against ignoring that messaging.

“If there is a will, there is way when it comes to politics,” said the North Carolina GOP consultant. 

“Is there a potential for a primary against Meadows? Absolutely,” he added. Especially in places like his home state of North Carolina or Ohio, home to former caucus chairman Jordan, Republicans hold most congressional districts and the GOP primary is often the only way for ambitious politicos to advance.

“I’ve heard a fair amount of talk from GOP activists, but whether that’s actually got a bunch of voters’ attention at this point, I don’t think so,” said Carter Wrenn, a North Carolina Republican strategist. Multiple Tar Heel state operatives confirmed that while there’s been scattered chatter about taking out Meadows, no candidates have emerged.

Besides tweeting and outside spending, it’s possible Trump could go into these districts and rally his supporters against incumbents. But that could backfire, some Republicans say. 

Freedom Caucus members, for example, could use the primary threat to raise money, and it could embolden their political moves in Washington.

“You can’t strong arm Jim Jordan,” the Ohio-based consultant said. “The more you push his face on the mat, the more he pushes back,” he said of the former championship wrestler. 

And what kind of candidate could run? Establishment-backed candidates would be almost impossible to run in some of these districts. “If Mark Meadows were challenged by an establishment Republican, that would almost be like handing him a gift,” Wrenn said.

These members’ constituents voted for Trump, but as one consultant put it, their voters “were conservative before Trump.” In other words, their loyalties may lie more so with their Freedom Caucus representatives than with the president, who’s been wishy-washy on issues important to hard-line conservatives. 

Regardless of how real it is, the primary threat is concerning to some Republicans who fear resources being diverted from the real battle — holding GOP seats in 2018.

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