Republicans have a message for Donald Trump: stay out of our primary races.
As Trump ramps up his revenge tour against the House Republicans who voted to impeach him, GOP lawmakers are sounding the alarm that his attempts to meddle in primaries could hurt the party’s efforts to win back the House next year, especially in critical swing districts in New York, Michigan and California. With just five seats between the GOP and the House majority, any one race could determine the balance.
The loudest warning shot came Wednesday from Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who told POLITICO Playbook he planned to urge the former president to refrain from playing in primaries. “That’s not going to be helpful,” he said. “It’s probably better for us that we keep these people.”
That’s not to say Republicans don’t see Trump still playing a role in the future of the party. But an increasing number of them from across the conference are echoing Emmer, pleading with Trump to back off even as they simultaneously acknowledge the former commander in chief is a private citizen and can do whatever he wants.
“We don’t need anything that exacerbates divisions,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), adding that he would “prefer” if Trump doesn’t try to unseat incumbents. “We ought to be united and be focused on retaking the majority, and I think settling scores gets in the way of that.”
With anxiety running high behind the scenes, Emmer has been calling the House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and privately assuring them that the party will have their backs, according to two GOP sources familiar with the conversations. The NRCC has a longstanding policy to not get involved in primaries, even for incumbents. But the campaign arm can be helpful in other ways to the campaigns of members who pay their dues, such as providing assistance on digital fundraising and recommending certain vendors.
“I would encourage the [former] president to not weigh in and let the voters make the decision,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “We can have a family discussion where we disagree … but when you overtly and publicly go out there, and have that type of attack on a member of the family, I don’t think that’s a wise move.”
“I don’t like when we’re calling out anyone by name in a negative fashion,” added Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who represents a purple seat in the St. Louis suburbs. “We need everybody to get across the finish line.”
The threat of pro-Trump primary challenges has put House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy in a particular bind. His top priority is winning back the majority, which necessarily involves protecting some GOP lawmakers being targeted by Trump. At the same time, however, the California Republican has been careful to stay on the good side of the former president, whom McCarthy feels will help boost fundraising and base turnout in 2022.
So far McCarthy has declined to comment publicly on Trump’s efforts to purge disloyal Republicans from the party. But in a statement provided to POLITICO on Wednesday, McCarthy made clear he is committed to protecting every single one of his incumbents.
“I look forward to working with each member of our conference in support of their re-election efforts,” McCarthy said in the statement. “We will take back the House in November 2022.”
Ten Republicans voted to impeach Trump for inciting a deadly insurrection at the Capitol — and he has vowed retribution on all of them. Trump-fueled primary challenges against members in deep-red seats, like Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Rep. Tom Rice in South Carolina, are unlikely to affect the GOP’s majority hopes.
But five of the pro-impeachment members are battle-tested incumbents in crucial swing seats that Republicans need to hold. That includes Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), who is close to McCarthy and just won back his seat after losing in 2018; Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a House veteran whom Republicans are desperately trying to prevent from retiring; Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), a freshman who replaced retiring Trump critic Justin Amash; and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), one of the only Republicans to represent a district touching the Pacific Ocean.
While the makeup of their constituencies are likely to change somewhat in redistricting, all five ran ahead of Trump to secure their reelections. Trump handily lost Valadao’s and Rep. John Katko’s (R-N.Y.) districts in 2020 and 2016 and carried the other three with 51 percent of the vote or less.
“President Trump can play in any open seat he wants. That’s fine,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the head of the center-right Republican Main Street Partnership. “But to challenge the Main Street members, frankly, and have them lose a primary with the majority on the line — Emmer’s absolutely right. I don’t know if whoever beats them in a primary can win a general.”
RSMP and its affiliated super PACs plan to raise and spend $25 million this cycle to elect moderate, business-minded Republicans. Katko, Valadao, Herrera Beutler, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Upton, Meijer and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) are in the partnership. Chamberlain vowed to spend in those members’ primaries if they draw challengers: “No matter what happens, we will defend the sitting members.”
If ultra-conservative or pro-Trump candidates were to prevail in primaries for some of those swing seats, the GOP risks losing the general elections in those districts, said Cole, a former NRCC chair. “That’s a concern,” he added.
So far, however, Trump has only endorsed one primary challenger to the Republicans who backed impeachment: Max Miller, a former White House and campaign aide who is running against Gonzalez in what is now a safe red seat in northeast Ohio. The state will, however, see a significant reshuffling of its congressional map because it’s slated to lose a seat in redistricting.
Gonzalez brushed aside the pro-Trump forces mobilizing against him: “I couldn’t care less, honestly,” he said.
Some Republicans have encouraged Trump to stick to open primaries, while others said he should think strategically. “He has to be selective in the district he goes to,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).
Trump’s staunchest Hill allies, of course, had a different take: “This is America. He can get involved in whatever he wants,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “Ultimately, it’s up to the voters in the district, but I’m fine with Trump being involved.”
Intraparty attacks on the Republicans who supported impeachment have fueled tension inside the House GOP conference. Last month, conservatives unsuccessfully tried to oust Cheney from her leadership post. And during a private party meeting, Rice voiced frustration that a page attacking Cheney was posted on WinRed, the national GOP’s online fundraising platform designed to be a counterweight to Democrats’ ActBlue.
Three of the pro-impeachment Republicans are in the NRCC’s Patriot Program for incumbent protection, which provides reelection and fundraising assistance in the general election.
Besides the Republican Main Street Partnership, other GOP outside groups have played in primaries to secure a more electable candidate. The Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans’ main outside group, spent money in New Mexico and Illinois primaries in 2020 — though its preferred candidates lost. That could happen again, particularly if a far-right candidate would endanger the seat.
Kinzinger, who voted to impeach Trump, also has just launched a PAC to act as a counterweight to the constellation of groups that are looking to elect acolytes of the former president. Kinzinger, who holds a safe red seat in Illinois, already has several challengers lining up to take him on. But he’s no stranger to tough races, having beat former Rep. Don Manzullo, a two-decade veteran of the House.
“I do think it will be damaging to the party’s chances to take the majority,” Kinzinger said of Trump’s potential involvement in primary races. “But it’s a time for choosing: You either are Trump first or you’re country first.”
“Winning the majority to me is not worth selling our soul,” he added.