Trump loyalty test will shape GOP’s 2018 House races

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, in Washington. Candidates are seeking to make GOP primaries a referendum on support for the president.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, in Washington. Candidates are seeking to make GOP primaries a referendum on support for the president. AP

Last October, Alabama Rep. Martha Roby joined dozens of fellow Republicans in disavowing candidate Donald Trump after that infamous tape of his vulgar comments about women surfaced. Nearly a year later, some of her Trump-loving constituents still haven’t forgiven her.

And now, from Roby’s southeastern Alabama district to congressional seats in South Carolina, Pennsylvania and across the country, Trump-embracing Republican primary challengers are beginning to gear up, seeking to paint GOP incumbents as insufficiently supportive of the president’s agenda.

“It’s a choice between me, the first guy to endorse him, or a congresswoman who said he was unfit to serve,” said state Rep. Barry Moore, a Republican challenging Roby who says he was the first elected official in Alabama to back Trump.

Moore’s comments are just a preview of the Trump-driven arguments that primary challengers are poised to make in 2018 — an election cycle that suddenly looks likely to feature an unexpected surge in contested House races. And it marks the opening of a new front in the internal GOP war that has already yielded public skirmishes on the Senate campaign trail and between the White House and a GOP-led Congress.

“This cycle it seems we’re meeting with more primary challengers than we have in any previous cycle that I’ve been at the Club [for Growth], and I’ve been at the Club since 2003,” said Andy Roth, vice president for government affairs at the conservative Club for Growth, which meets with both House and Senate candidates and has a PAC that can play powerfully in primaries.

Caught up in the clash are incumbents like Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Virginia’s Reps. Barbara Comstock and Scott Taylor – all of whom face primary challenges built on vocal support for the polarizing president.

Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, recently drew an opponent who sought to make the race a referendum on Trump, though Dent last week announced retirement plans. This week, another possible Pennsylvania primary came online, as a potential challenger to Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick formed an exploratory committee, citing in part Fitzpatrick’s refusal to vote for Trump, according to the outlet PoliticsPA.

And House Speaker Paul Ryan is also facing a rematch with primary challenger Paul Nehlen, though Ryan beat Nehlen in his 2016 primary by 68 percentage points.

“There may be more, it’s still early,” said former Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis. “Particularly in these southern, rural districts, that’s the most fertile ground for challengers from the right.”

Republican officials stress that the emerging House primaries don’t yet appear serious. These GOP operatives question the challengers’ abilities to raise money or build a following, particularly in moderate districts, including several in Virginia. Plus, the challengers have low name ID, meaning they just aren’t well known enough to easily make a dent in the support enjoyed by the GOP incumbents.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has a Primary Patriot program that will protect dues-paying NRCC members in competitive primaries, but “nothing applies to that yet because we don’t have competitive primaries,” said a source familiar with the NRCC’s plans.

But such dynamics have shifted quickly in the past, as primaries tend to draw out the most committed conservative voters, and Republican strategists deeply connected to the conservative movement expect that again, especially if the GOP-controlled Congress can’t deliver on long-promised agenda items, particularly tax reform, after failing to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“There are very deep pockets that are committing to primaries, looking at some of these Senate primaries,” said Ned Ryun, a plugged-in conservative strategist. “At the same time, I think there’s going to be enough money to go into some of these House primaries to say--first of all, forget about the ‘Trump agenda,’ this is just common sense.”

“Between now and the end of the year, if there are not things that are legitimately done in Congress, we will see this thing go from kind of on people’s radars to the front of people’s minds,” he added, noting that Trump is much more popular with the base than Congress is.

The conservative group Americans for Limited Government already helped spearhead a rally that turned into a Dent rebuke-fest, and the group’s president, Rick Manning, said that there could be more events around additional races. He pointed to a Sept. 23 “Keep Your Promises” rally, hosted by the Tea Party Patriots in Washington, as a key upcoming organizing opportunity.

Meanwhile, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is already controversially involved in pushing pro-Trump primary challenges in Senate races, POLITICO reported, and a source close to him suggested to McClatchy that House races could come more prominently onto the conservative movement’s radar.

“One thing I think you’ll see is Republicans in Washington start to learn there are going to be political consequences for their actions when they decide to attack the president,” said the source.

“You’re going to see a ton of House Republican primaries. They’re not always going to be well-funded, serious challenges, but I think it’s going to be pretty close to what we saw in 2010, when almost every sitting Republican had at least some sort of token challenger,” that source said. “What that means is, the grassroots, they’re pissed off and they’re passionate and they’re sick and tired of the political class in Washington.”

Since the election—which was supposed to serve as a release valve for some of those same frustrated grassroots activists—some members of Congress who previously crossed Trump, like Roby, have sought to work closely with him.

“The presidential campaign is over, and Rep. Roby is focused on working with our unified Republican government to deliver results,” said her spokeswoman, Emily Taylor, pointing to areas of policy agreement, including Roby’s support for the Obamacare repeal effort that failed. “She has consistently supported President Trump's policy initiatives and has said time and again that she wants our President to be successful.”

But that hasn’t defused all of the activist anger over her earlier rejection of Trump, according to several plugged-in party leaders in the district, most of whom could only offer candid assessments on the condition of anonymity because they have committed to neutrality in the primary.

Asked how serious Moore’s challenge is, one top Republican leader in the district replied, “very serious.”

“People do not want to forgive her for that,” said this Republican, referencing Roby’s renouncing of Trump last fall. “I felt at the time that people’s memories are short, by the next election it will go away. My experience tells me it has not gone away.”

Other incumbents facing pro-Trump primary challenges aren’t dialing back their critiques of the president in the same way Roby has, and their challengers are pouncing.

Sanford, of South Carolina, publicly breaks with the administration when he considers it necessary, despite coming from a strongly pro-Trump state, if a relatively more moderate district. And his primary opponent, state Rep. Katie Arrington, is aiming to cast him as a pol who is more interested in trashing Trump on television than fighting for the district.

"The campaign season is the time to create contrasts, whether they are real or imagined, and in this instance you got a Republican challenger who says I don't vote with Trump enough, and I have a Democratic challenger who says I vote with him too often,” Sanford told McClatchy. “So goes the world of politics. In the meantime, I'm going to work for the taxpayers of the First District as I have for the first eight months of the president's tenure."

Sanford and many other seasoned incumbents are expected to take primary opponents seriously — even long-shot ones, said Davis, the former congressman.

But, he warned: “People right now are still angry, they’re looking at ways to express that outrage. Whether it’s against an incumbent in a primary, in a general, who knows? When you have this much cultural, social, economic change in a short period of time, people become unsettled.”

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.