Party officials normally hate primary challenges and all the messy drama that comes with a family feud. But this cycle, Republicans see an opportunity to clean out the dregs of the GOP.
Candidates are lining up to challenge the House’s most embattled Republicans — lawmakers who have been indicted, who have made racist comments, who have faced whisper campaigns in their home states.
While GOP leaders typically stay out of primary contests, these members are getting snubbed or facing outright opposition from the party establishment. At least one member of GOP leadership — retiring Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan — has decided to back a primary opponent to hard-line conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who was kicked off his committees for making racist remarks earlier this year.
King’s comments “reflect negatively upon Republicans and, as a result, I will contribute to his primary opponent,” Mitchell, the sophomore class representative, said in a statement.
Mitchell’s stance underscores a broader feeling in the GOP Conference, where many Republicans would be relieved to see fresh faces with less baggage emerge victorious in some of these primary races. Otherwise, the GOP will continue to take the reputational hit that comes with these lawmakers serving in office — or worse, the party could lose those seats in the general election.
“You have a lot of people who have been concerned for many, many months now about finding some way of getting rid of some of these guys,” said Liz Mair, a GOP strategist. “There is a sense that we either clean House, or Democrats take those seats.”
Freshman Rep. Steve Watkins of Kansas, who has recently faced rumors that he’s poised to resign amid scandal, became the latest Republican to draw a primary challenge this week. State Treasurer Jake LaTurner decided to jump into the race (and abandon his Senate bid) after receiving public encouragement from Republican former Gov. Jeff Colyer, a rare primary intervention that fueled buzz in GOP circles.
A pile of Republican candidates is also vying to take on King, who has continued to kick up controversy all year, as well as indicted Rep. Chris Collins of New York, who was arrested on insider trading charges in August 2018.
And last week, former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced he was exploring whether to challenge his old colleague Rep. Duncan Hunter, who will go to trial early next year for allegedly misusing $250,000 in campaign funds to finance a lavish lifestyle.
Outside groups are also itching to get involved, hoping to better position the party as Republicans try to claw their way back to power next year. The conservative Club for Growth is actively interviewing primary candidates for the Collins and Hunter races and keeping an eye on King’s district as well.
“I’ve told Republican leaders: We reserve the right to be in primaries, including in challenger races,” David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, said in an interview. “There is a lot of tension. They don’t want us to do that.”
But, he added, “We also recognize that we need to make sure the Republican majority is sustained.”
King, who has been condemned by both parties for racist and inflammatory remarks, set off alarm bells in the GOP last year when he nearly lost to a Democratic challenger, despite representing a Republican stronghold in the heart of Trump country. Now, King is in the political fight of his life, as four Republican candidates — led by state Sen. Randy Feenstra — have mounted a challenge against the embattled nine-term incumbent.
While the top GOP leaders don’t formally play in primaries, they certainly haven’t done King any favors. Not only did they strip him of his committee assignments for defending white supremacy and white nationalism in an interview with the New York Times, but Rep. Liz Cheney — the No. 3 Republican in the House — has called on King to resign.
“As I’ve said before, it’s time for him to go. The people of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District deserve better,” the Wyoming Republican tweeted last month, after King’s latest instance of eyebrow-raising rhetoric: suggesting humanity wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for rape and incest.
King also wasn’t allowed to fly aboard Air Force One this summer when President Donald Trump flew to Iowa for a state GOP event — another sign of King’s pariah status in the party.
The mix of snubs, demands for his resignation and lost committee assignments has left King struggling to raise money and complaining that the party is trying to tip the scales against him.
As a long-standing policy, the National Republican Congressional Committee does not spend in primaries. But the House GOP campaign’s arm did condemn King last cycle for a separate set of inflammatory comments and pulled support for him shortly before Election Day.
“If I were sitting there as NRCC chair, I would want to dump these guys, all three of them, in the trash,” Mair said, referring to King, Collins and Hunter.
Hunter and Collins created headaches for the GOP last summer when they were both indicted, tarnishing the party’s “drain the swamp” message and sparking fears that their once-safe seats would turn competitive. Both lawmakers, however, refused to step down and narrowly defeated their Democratic challengers.
Hunter has been accused by federal prosecutors of misusing campaign cash, including to pursue extramarital affairs with congressional aides and lobbyists. With Hunter at risk of facing serious jail time, former Republican San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio has already announced a primary bid. Meanwhile, Issa — who still has friends in the House GOP after serving there nearly 20 years — is also considering jumping into the race.
Rank-and-file members, like leadership, tend to stay out of ugly primary fights involving their colleagues. But Issa’s entrance into the race could complicate the equation for some of the GOP’s California delegation, who already saw their ranks dwindle after the last election.
“It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see a few — I wouldn’t say a ton — but a few members of the California delegation come out for Issa,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
Collins, meanwhile, will go on trial in February for insider trading charges. His spokeswoman said he will “decide on reelection over the next few months,” but argued the New York Republican “remains effective in representing his constituents” and maintains “a close relationship with the White House.”
Local GOP candidates see an opening and are rushing to challenge Collins, warning Republican voters that the seat could flip if Collins stays on the ticket.
Like King, both Collins and Hunter have been booted from their committee assignments, handing even more ammo to their opponents who have questioned their value in Congress.
“The only way this district is lost is if Chris Collins is on the ballot,” state Sen. Chris Jacobs (R-Buffalo), who declared his bid against Collins in May, told POLITICO.
A bitter battle is also brewing in Kansas, where Watkins is facing a primary challenge from LaTurner after being dogged by resignation rumors appearing in local media. Watkins has dismissed any suggestion that he would leave office, and his chief of staff has slammed the chatter as a "whisper campaign coming from political operatives in Kansas.”
But concern is growing in Kansas GOP circles about Watkins’ viability as a candidate next year, according to multiple sources. Before narrowly winning his election in 2018, Watkins came under fire for reports of sexual misconduct and for inaccurately claiming he started and expanded a private contracting company in the Middle East.
LaTurner said he has not had conversations with House GOP leaders or anyone at the NRCC, but said he expected to at some point in the future.
“At the end of the day we don’t want to see another congressional seat be turned over to the Democrats in Kansas,” LaTurner told POLITICO, accusing Watkins of poor coalition building and lackluster fundraising. “Congressman Watkins, without question, puts this seat in jeopardy this cycle.”
Watkins’ camp is already firing back, in a preview of the intraparty feud to come.
“Jake LaTurner’s entire career has been political ladder-climbing — and that climb ends in August,” said Bryan Piligra, a spokesman for Watkins.
Some strategists argue that tough primary fights aren’t entirely bad for the party. The winner can emerge battle-tested and better prepared to absorb attacks from Democratic opponents.
But if Republicans rip each other apart in a nasty primary, it could also bruise the nominee while straining relationships inside the party.
“Primaries pit families against each other. ... You will have accusations of backstabbing and being a traitor,” Heye said. “And that’s why they can become especially negative and do so very quickly.”
James Arkin and Anna Gronewold contributed to this report.