GOP incumbents on defense, and other takeaways from primaries

Vote for independent Jan. 6 commission draws attacks

Rep. Michael Guest, R-Miss., faces a runoff for his party's nomination for a third term after not getting over 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Michael Guest, R-Miss., faces a runoff for his party's nomination for a third term after not getting over 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 8, 2022 at 4:09pm, Updated at 7:23am

Rep. Michael Guest touts his endorsement from Donald Trump in a pinned post on the top of his campaign Twitter feed. 

But that endorsement was from 2020 — the Mississippi Republican did not get one this year — and it didn’t help him Tuesday, when he was forced into a runoff against a pro-Trump challenger who attacked Guest for his vote to establish an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. 

Guest was among a handful of Republicans who voted for the commission who faced challenges from their right in primaries Tuesday. Here are some takeaways from those elections. 

Battered for Jan. 6 commission vote

Guest, a former prosecutor who describes himself as a “conservative Christian leader,” was the only Republican in Mississippi’s delegation to vote for the Jan. 6 commission. Early Wednesday afternoon, The Associated Press made the call that he and Navy veteran Michael Cassidy will meet in a runoff in less than two weeks. With an estimated 96 percent of the vote counted, Cassidy had 47.5 percent and Guest 46.9 percent in the three-candidate field. Candidates in Mississippi have to get more than 50 percent to win primaries or the top two finishers meet in a June 28 runoff.

“I think people are confused about who we are and what we stand for,” Guest told local television news reporters Tuesday. “We’ve allowed our opponent to define that. So if this does go to a runoff, then we are going to make sure that people of the 3rd District know who we are, they know our conservative values.”

Cassidy cited Guest’s vote for the Jan. 6 commission on his campaign website, deriding the incumbent as a “pro-amnesty RINO” who has “been silent on the spread of Leftist social values.” RINO stands for "Republican in name only."

South Dakota Republican Rep. Dusty Johnson also voted for the commission but had an easier time fending off a challenge from state lawmaker Taffy Howard, who accused him of not being supportive enough of Trump. 

With an estimated 99 percent of the vote counted, Johnson had 59 percent to Howard’s 41 percent. 

Unlike Guest’s race, Johnson’s featured significant spending by outside groups, with $552,000 going to help Howard and $365,000 to help Johnson. 

The commission for which Guest and Johnson voted would have been bipartisan and modeled after one that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It passed the House with support from 35 Republicans, but it did not advance in the Senate. After that, House Democrats and two Republicans — Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — voted to create a select committee that was more under the Democrats’ control. That panel is due to hold a public presentation of its findings Thursday. 

California Rep. David Valadao, who not only voted for the commission but was among 10 Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment in early 2021, also faced a strong challenger from within the GOP. In the all-party primary for the 22nd District, the only call made by AP as of Wednesday afternoon was that Democrat Rudy Salas would be on the November ballot. At 3 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday, an estimated 32 percent of the vote had been counted, and Salas had 47 percent. Valadao was second with 26 percent, but Republican Chris Mathys, who attacked Valadao from the right but did not have Trump’s endorsement, had 19 percent. Should Valadao’s fortunes reverse as officials count more votes, national Republicans may well abandon the race. President Joe Biden would have won the reconfigured district in 2020 by 13 points.

Candidates matter

Also forced into a runoff in Mississippi was Republican Rep. Steven M. Palazzo, but that was after a contest that centered on more traditional critiques of alleged ethical lapses and “no-show” representation in Washington. 

Palazzo had 32 percent in the five-way race when AP made the call Tuesday night that he would be one of the candidates in the runoff. The call that Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell would get the second spot was made Wednesday afternoon after Ezell received 25 percent of the vote. 

Palazzo was facing ethical scrutiny for allegedly spending campaign money on personal expenses, asking official staff to perform personal and campaign-related tasks and misusing his position to boost his brother’s naval career.

The allegations against Palazzo surfaced after a 2019 primary challenger noticed irregularities in his campaign finance reports and hired a private investigator, who turned his findings over to the Campaign Legal Center. The nonprofit watchdog group filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics, Mississippi Today reported. The OCE detailed its findings in a report released in 2021 and handed the matter to the House Ethics Committee, which has said it is looking into the allegations.

In Montana’s newly created 1st District, meanwhile, former Rep. Ryan Zinke was narrowly leading former state Sen. Al Olszewski by 1.5 percentage points, with 95 percent of the votes counted, as of 7 p.m. Wednesday. Zinke faced multiple ethics probes dating back to his time as Trump’s first Interior secretary. He also faced questions about whether he spent most of his time in Santa Barbara, Calif., where his wife owns a home. 

National parties get desired matchups

Republicans had their fingers crossed that California Rep. Mike Garcia, one of their party’s most vulnerable incumbents, would again run against Christy Smith, a former state Assembly member, in the 27th District. Garcia beat Smith twice, in special and then general elections, in 2020. Smith easily prevailed against two other Democrats to secure the No. 2 spot, behind Garcia, in Tuesday’s all-party primary. 

Republicans in the state were also relieved that it looked Wednesday as if Rep. Young Kim had made the cut in the 40th District. AP had not called the race, but with an estimated 62 percent of the vote counted at 2:30 p.m. Kim was ahead of fellow Republican Greg Raths, a former Mission Viejo city councilmember. Democrat Asif Mahmood was in the lead. 

The House GOP campaign arm’s two “Young Guns” in California, candidates who receive extra help, also both appeared to make the cut. Scott Baugh came in second, to Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, with nearly 31 percent in the 47th District. Also, Young Gun John Duarte appeared poised to make the cut in the 13th District, where his Democratic opponent will likely be state Assembly member Adam Gray.

In New Jersey, where the Republican candidate for governor did better than expected last year, the party hopes to take back some suburban seats lost to Democrats in earlier cycles.  

“For the first time in a long time, Republicans have a very significant tail wind. Democrats have a bad problem,” state GOP chair Bob Hugin said on a call with reporters Wednesday.

Hugin declined to rank which races he expected to be the best for Republicans, but he name checked Democratic Reps. Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski, Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer as “puppets for Nancy Pelosi and the radical left.”

Businessman Bob Healey won the 3rd District GOP primary to take on Kim. Former state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. won the 7th District primary, setting up a rematch with Malinowski after Kean came within 1.2 percentage points of defeating him last cycle. Healey had been named to the NRCC’s “On The Radar” program, while Kean was named to the higher-tier Young Guns program. 

But in the 5th District, Republican Frank Pallotta defeated another “On the Radar” candidate, Nick De Gregorio. That set up a 2020 rematch against Gottheimer and denied some Republicans their preferred matchup.  De Gregorio had accused Gottheimer of meddling in the primary when his campaign sent mailers to voters saying Pallotta was “too much like Trump.”

Big spending ahead

Party committees and outside groups are lining up to spend big money on some of the nation’s signature matchups that were set up in Tuesday’s races, leading with Iowa’s 3rd District, where Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne learned she’ll face a challenge from state Sen. Zach Nunn.  

Several other competitive races are likely to draw mega investments, including the November race between GOP Rep. Michelle Steel and Democrat Jay Chen in California’s 45th District. 

Democrats also see an opening in New Mexico against 2nd District Rep. Yvette Herrell, who will face progressive former Las Cruces City Councilor Gabriel Vasquez, a former aide to Sen. Martin Heinrich.