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Why Republicans Aren’t Sweating After 2 Incumbents Lose Primaries

For one, GOP lawmakers who publicly criticize Trump are getting scarcer

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The defeat of one of the party’s most notorious political survivors this week wasn’t enough to scare House Republicans.

South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor, had never lost an election before Tuesday. But his criticism of President Donald Trump did him in.

Or at least that’s what Republicans are telling themselves.

“Mark made his fight with the White House way more personal than he needed to,” Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Wednesday.

Republicans aren’t worried about more Sanford-like primary situations because there aren’t many Republicans left in Congress who would dare speak out against the president the way he did.

Some of the president’s harshest Republican critics aren’t running for re-election. Others who have broken with the White House are running in competitive districts where criticizing Trump is politically advantageous.

And some who criticized Trump during the 2016 campaign have doubled back, embracing the administration’s policies and the president himself.

That past criticism still haunts some Republicans, though. Take Alabama Rep. Martha Roby. She was forced into a July 17 GOP primary runoff against party-switching former Rep. Bobby Bright, whom she unseated in 2010, after securing less than 40 percent of the vote in the 2nd District primary last week.

New York Rep. Dan Donovan also faces a credible primary threat from an opponent who says he has not had the president’s back.

Still, while Donovan and Roby could lose their races in the next few weeks, Republicans generally do not think the conference has a broader primary problem.

“It’s not unusual that a couple of members go down,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former NRCC chairman. “That’s the way it is.”

Members lose for various reasons. The two incumbents who have lost this year — Sanford and North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger — were known for not wanting to spend money running competitive races. Until a few weeks ago, Sanford hadn’t spent money on TV advertising in five years.

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The Trump factor

But Trump — or more accurately, perceived disloyalty to him — played a role in both incumbents’ primary losses.

Hours before polls closed Tuesday in South Carolina, Trump endorsed Sanford’s primary opponent, state Rep. Katie Arrington — the first time Trump has backed a primary opponent against a sitting House Republican.

In North Carolina, Pittenger seemed to be in better shape than he was in 2016, when he narrowly defeated former pastor Mark Harris in a recount. He wasn’t facing an FBI investigation this cycle, and wasn’t running in a newly redrawn district for the first time.

But that wasn’t enough to save the three-term Republican, who lost his primary by 2 points. Harris was able to tap into the Trump base, driving up turnout of a different type of GOP voter than the pro-business Republicans who usually supported Pittenger.

In Alabama, Roby has been haunted by her past Trump criticism. She was one of more than three dozen members who disavowed Trump in fall 2016 after a tape emerged of the candidate bragging about grabbing women by the genitals.

Roby has since attempted to link herself to the administration, but it wasn’t enough to win a majority in a crowded primary last week. Republicans are confident she will prevail in the runoff, especially since Bright is a former Democrat who supported House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker.

Donovan is also facing a Trump-inspired primary challenge from former Rep. Michael G. Grimm, who served jail time for tax fraud. The pair will face off on June 26.

Grimm has accused Donovan of not supporting the president, but Trump recently endorsed the incumbent as the candidate best positioned to win in November.

“Where I live, with prime Republican, conservative voters, [Trump’s] polling at 84 percent,” Donovan said Wednesday. “To have him come out and tell my community that he needs me here to help him move his agenda forward … it’s very important to me.”

Protecting their own

Roby knew she was in trouble after the 2016 election. She won less than 50 percent of the vote, defeating her Democratic challenger by 9 points. A write-in campaign, provoked by her last-minute disavowal of Trump, garnered 11 percent. Every other Republican in the Alabama delegation either won by more than 30 points or ran uncontested.

When the 2018 cycle got underway, the NRCC added Roby, along with Donovan and Pittenger, to the new “Primary Patriots” program, designed to offer assistance to dues-paying incumbents facing serious challengers from their own party.

Stivers made protecting incumbents part of his platform when he was running to chair the NRCC. To be a part of the “Primary Patriots” program, members must prove they have a real threat on their hands. But paying dues is the first prerequisite. Stivers said Sanford “did not make himself eligible” for the program.

Some Republicans say protecting leadership allies was one reason for the Primary Patriots program in the first place, which means Sanford as a member of the Freedom Caucus wouldn’t have been as valuable an incumbent to save as Pittenger. (The NRCC cut Sanford off during his ultimately successful comeback bid in a 2013 special election.) Pittenger’s loss could be a blow to GOP leadership since Harris has said he would join the Freedom Caucus, if he wins in November. 

For the members it’s helping — Roby and Donovan — the Primary Patriots program is intended to provide a boost, not an endless spigot.

Its main role, said Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, who oversees the new program, has been helping these incumbents raise money, and providing them with data and “institutional support.”

“It’s not about having the NRCC come in with unlimited funds to help members,” Davis said Wednesday morning. “It’s really about getting them the resources they need to run their own campaign, since members know their districts the best.”

GOP leaders announced at their conference meeting Wednesday that there would be an upcoming fundraiser for Roby, and encouraged members to participate.

A source with Donovan’s campaign said the program has brought in $50,000 for the New York Republican. Donovan has raised a total of nearly $1.2 million this election cycle, and he’s spent half of his campaign cash battling Grimm.

Looking to November

Trump’s effect on primaries, whether or not it results in more incumbents losing, could end up hurting Republicans across the country come November.

Even some incumbents who faced nominal primary opposition have had to spend money in primaries in the face of challenges from Trump loyalists. That will potentially make their lives more difficult as they pivot to the general election.

In Virginia’s 10th District, for example, GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock spent more than she raised during the pre-primary reporting period to boost her conservative credentials and attack a little-known challenger on her right flank.

The Associated Press on Tuesday actually called the six-way 10th District Democratic primary before it called Comstock’s two-person Republican race. She ended up defeating retired Air Force pilot Shak Hill, 61 percent to 40 percent, raising some GOP concerns about her strength with the party base heading into November. Comstock is in one of the most competitive districts and needs to appeal to its moderate suburbanites while still energizing core Republican voters.

In Pittenger’s North Carolina district, Harris now has to hope he can attract support from a broad enough swath of the GOP voters to defeat a well-funded Democratic opponent. The former Southern Baptist pastor could lose the support of some “country club Republicans” who may find the Democrat more palatable.

“Trump has realigned the intensity of the base in the GOP primaries to a tea party voter, which underscores the general election turnout problem Republicans have seen in their base nationwide,” said North Carolina GOP strategist Paul Shumaker, who worked for Pittenger in the primary.

If the past year and half of protests and special elections is any indication, Democrats are motivated by Trump. But the fear among some Republicans is that their more suburban, well-educated voters — those who are not part of the president’s base — won’t have enough incentive to show up in November.

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