House Primaries and the Soul of the GOP

GOP Elephant

By Jacob Zionce.

I’m willing to go out on a limb right now and call it – the GOP will keep control of the House of Representatives in 2014. It’s really not much of a leap, though. To take the majority, Democrats would need to win 17 seats in the midterm elections currently held by Republicans, which seems next to impossible. According to Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call ratings, the Democrats would need to win 43 of 48 house races that will be competitive, with a ‘competitive race’ being defined as any race that has any potential to be close in 2014, even if one party is currently heavily favored. So not only will they have to win all the seats they are currently favored to win in, or that are ‘leaning’ or ‘tilting’ their way, but also have all the tossup races, all the races that ‘tilt’ or ‘lean’ Republican, and five of the ten competitive races the GOP are favored in. The Cook Political Report, Roll Call’s major competition, doesn’t provide a much brighter picture for House Democrats. They see 66 races as competitive, and believe that Democrats will have to win all of the races that are ‘likely’ and ‘leaning’ Democratic, all of the nine toss ups, all of the eleven ‘lean’ Republicans, and five of the sixteen ‘likely’ Republican races if they are to take the House. Regardless of which ratings system you prefer, Nancy Pelosi and Co.  are going to need about five Todd Akins, a few Richard Murdocks, and even a John Koster or two to have a shot at making this close.

Traditionally, the in-party jostling that occurs in primary season serves as a boon for opposition parties looking to pick up seats. While all three of the previously mentioned political guffaws occurred during general elections, hotly contested primaries offer an extra opportunity for political missteps to occur (think Rick Perry’s ‘oops’ moment). At the same time, a competitive primary can also force candidates to stake more extreme positions that will appeal to their party base, but will isolate them come the general election. Parties furthermore face the risk of nominating a more extremist candidate who may appeal to a more polarizing base but will have a tougher time in general elections than their more moderate primary opponent.

A perfect example would be Richard Murdock, and while his race was for the Senate rather than the House, the Tea Party-backed hardliner replaced the more moderate six-time Senator, Richard Lugar, who had been so popular in the state prior to his primary defeat that Democrats did not even run an opponent against him in 2006. Even without Murdock’s preposterous remarks, his radical position would have made his Indiana Senate bid a tough win.

One would think, therefore, that the Democrats might stand a chance in this election cycle, which features a far more competitive Republican than Democratic primary field. As Democratic Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-NY) put it, “we will have a handful of primaries on our side of the aisle… [while Republicans] have a holy war on their side of the aisle.” As Nathan Gonzales writes for Roll Call, however, these primaries probably will not lead to any real positive results for Democrats; most of the heated primaries are in districts that are safely in GOP control regardless of the candidate.

That does not, however, make the Republican primary season any less important, or fun, to watch, for while the name of the winning party may already be clear, the nature of that party is still very much up in the air. Infighting within the Republican establishment has been a very real problem in the wake of the ‘fiscal cliff’ decision, in which Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) voted with Democratic house members on a deficit reduction deal, and against more than 60 percent of GOP Congressmen, to avoid going over the proverbial ‘cliff’, and raising taxes on all Americans in the process. Since then, Boehner has had to go to war within his own party over issues ranging from a recent failed Farm Bill proposal, on which he lost 62 Republican votes, to the ongoing immigration debate, where Boehner refuses to take a stance on including a path to citizenship for fear of alienating his base, and refuses to present legislation passed by the Senate because “a majority of the majority” (read: “A majority of Republicans”) is not in favor of the bill. This Republican infighting has almost lost Boehner his job in early 2011, when ultra-conservative House Republicans almost attempted a coup against the Speaker before deciding to fall in line behind their more moderate leader.

An influx of freshmen Republican congressmen, however, could embolden the hardline faction. The ousting of enough moderate Republicans in primary season, and their being replaced with ultra-conservatives, would most definitely shift the majority party’s dynamics and views on political issues, and could very well cost Boehner his speakership.

So keep your eye on Idaho’s second district, where Rep. Mike Simpson is under attack from challenger Bryan Smith and the conservative Club for Growth. And don’t ignore the Pennsylvania 9th, where Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster finds himself under fire from opponent Art Halvorson and the right-wing Madison Project PAC. While the winning party in these districts may be a foregone conclusion, the victor in these ‘holy wars’ will most certainly help dictate the soul of the GOP.

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