Along with attention, GOP House firebrands attract primary fights
Opponents question effectiveness of Greene, Boebert and Cawthorn
Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn and Lauren Boebert have built national reputations and raised millions of dollars by flouting political norms.
Now the MAGA axis of the House freshman class is attracting Republican challengers who say that, with the GOP in position to win control of the House majority, Republican voters in Georgia, North Carolina and Colorado deserve representatives who want to pass laws rather than pick fights on Twitter.
That’s a direct attack on their high-profile opponents. It’s also a version of a conversation taking place in Republican primaries across the country as the GOP struggles to determine how much of former President Donald Trump’s in-your-face political style to adopt into the party’s DNA.
With state and national party committees moving to denounce elected Republicans willing to publicly distance themselves from Trump or push too hard against his baseless allegations that the 2020 election was stolen, those disagreements hinge on style more than policy differences.
“My message is on effectiveness, and focusing on what can be done in the district,” said Jennifer Strahan, the owner of a health care consulting company challenging Greene in the GOP primary in Georgia’s 14th District. “It’s not about being a celebrity.”
Karen Bentley, a health care consultant and former Mecklenburg County commissioner running against Cawthorn in North Carolina's 13th District, struck a similar note.
“Madison Cawthorn is a terrific marketer,” she said. “But we’re elected to serve, and we’re elected to get work done.”
And Don Coram, a state senator challenging Boebert in Colorado’s 3rd District, is appealing to centrist voters.
“My whole thing is, I put policy over politics,” Coram said during a call from a state agricultural fair on a frigid day in Colorado last week. “I’m going to represent the people in my district, and not whatever loud, fringe group that has my ear.”
Boebert, who upset Rep. Scott Tipton in the 2020 primary, is still seen as a newcomer compared to Coram, who has a reputation as a strong fundraiser, said Seth Masket, a University of Denver political scientist. But beating an incumbent is difficult, and the contest will test the temperature of the Republican Party in 2022, he said.
“This is the conversation that has been going on within the party nationally for some time now: whether it will embrace the Trump-style politics that Boebert has embraced or whether it could return to the pre-Trump style of articulating a conservative vision and trying to enact policies that reflect that and respecting democratic traditions and norms in the process,” he said.
Much of the national attention surrounding the three races has been driven by Democrats who use Greene, Cawthorn and Boebert as a shorthand for a brand of Republican populism — characterized by fierce allegiance to Trump, promulgation of conspiracy theories and rhetoric sometimes labeled racist, antisemitic and anti-Islam — they see as unpalatable to independent and moderate voters.
But even Democrats admit that the odds of any of the three falling to a Democratic challenger are slim, especially after redistricting made Boebert’s district friendlier to Republicans. Cawthorn announced in November, after North Carolina released its new maps, that he would leave his neighboring 11th District, where he had attracted challengers from both parties, to run in the more solid Republican 13th. The state Supreme Court threw out that map on Friday, however.
Although Greene’s district became slightly more competitive after redistricting, it is still ranked Sold Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.
Meanwhile, some Republicans who are quietly dissatisfied with the MAGA-fication of the GOP have started to take notice of the developing GOP primaries.
Some concede they face a tough fight against incumbents with national fundraising networks, but they say independent voters turned off by the antics on the far right could be won over with a plea for decorum.
Strahan, who launched her campaign in September, was the guest of honor last week at a D.C. fundraiser whose hosts included Julie Conway, a strategist who has worked for years to get more women elected to the House and Senate.
Strahan was also profiled in Jewish Insider and the conservative National Review magazine. A poll conducted by the GOP firm TargetPoint in early January found that voters would initially choose Greene over Strahan, 60 percent to 30 percent. The results were within the survey’s 4.6-point margin of error, however, when voters were told of Greene’s history of incendiary comments.
“Before I met her, I saw her bio and the rest, and she seemed very intriguing,” Conway recalled about Strahan. “But I was like, ‘Ugh, this is going to be an uphill battle.’ And then I sat down with her, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are outstanding.’”
Conway is supporting Strahan in her personal capacity and not in her official position as executive director of View PAC, a group that seeks to elect Republican women to Congress and does not take sides in primaries.
Through Dec. 31, Strahan had raised only $106,000, compared to the $10 million that Greene reported on her most recent disclosure to the Federal Election Commission. But Conway said the matchup is not as uneven as it seems.
“A candidate like Jennifer Strahan doesn’t have to outraise Majorie Taylor Greene,” she said. “She's never going to do that in 100 years. What she needs to do is have enough resources to say who she is, a conservative, business leader and health care executive. If she can get the word out that she is a credible, viable alternative, that is all she needs to do.”
The races against Cawthorn and Boebert are still taking shape.
Coram, who announced his campaign in January, became Boebert’s best-known challenger after Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan dropped out of the race because new maps drew her residence outside the district.
In North Carolina, Cawthorn’s decision to switch districts led state House speaker Tim Moore to announce he would not run, even though his colleagues in the state House had reportedly drawn the district for him. Since then, some state party leaders have reportedly started to organize opposition to Cawthorn.
Bentley, who was already running in the district before Cawthorn switched, said she isn’t perturbed. “The fact that he is leaving his district to run here has not played well,” she said. “People see it as an opportunistic move.”
The campaigns of Cawthorn and Greene did not return requests for comment for this story. Boebert’s campaign sent two news releases attacking Coram.
Greene, 47, and Strahan, 35, have similar profiles as white, suburban women who have their own businesses, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. Strahan is also pro-Trump and willing to entertain questions about “issues” in the 2020 election, although she stops short of questioning the outcome.
“The difference is, she is not a QAnon follower, at least she doesn't appear to be. So you get all of the conservative policies you want, with no craziness,” Bullock said. Still, he was skeptical about her chances, pointing out that Greene beat a more conservative Republican who had the backing of House GOP Whip Steve Scalise in her first primary in 2020.
“There are certainly a number of voters in that district who don't find her embarrassing,” he said. “They think she is a stalwart who is representing their interests.”
Strahan said she is focusing on what she sees as Greene’s lack of attention to constituent services and her inability to participate in much of the lawmaking process after she was stripped of her House committee assignments in 2021. The House took that step after Greene had been a member just about a month because of her refusal to denounce past incendiary comments, including support for the QAnon conspiracy theory and calls for violence against Democratic lawmakers. Eleven Republicans sided with House Democrats on that vote.
Greene also lost a major platform last month when she was permanently suspended from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 disinformation.
“People can see what Marjorie Taylor Greene has done, or not done, in the district,” Strahan said. “It is astounding how many people are so glad I am running and they feel they are not currently represented.”
The new 14th District lines take in parts of suburban Atlanta, with more college-educated voters who tend to be more moderate. Georgia’s open primary system also makes it possible Democrats could vote in the Republican primary.
Coram, in Colorado, has served in the state legislature for over a decade and is a cattle rancher who has worked in the mining industry. “I know all the farmers, ranchers, everyone around for miles and miles,” he said.
While also pro-Trump, he is campaigning on his ability to forge relationships.
Boebert “is appealing to people who do not live and do not have rural Colorado values,” Coram said. “I'm going to say what I mean, and I mean what I say. That’s it.”