Why you should care
Because the Trump era’s volatile politics could bring a shakeup to the House.
It is exceedingly rare for a U.S. House incumbent to lose a primary race. According to data compiled by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, it usually happens to fewer than a handful of lawmakers each cycle –- with spikes each decade after congressional districts are redrawn. “There are weird circumstances, as opposed to … a national movement or something,” says UVA’s Kyle Kondik.
But the uncertain Donald Trump era presents new risks. Insurgent candidate Roy Moore’s victory in the Alabama Republican Senate primary has emboldened populist forces to challenge more establishment-tied incumbents and candidates. (Trump halfheartedly endorsed the appointed incumbent, Luther Strange, but Trump allies such as former administration official and media provocateur Steve Bannon rallied to Moore’s cause.)
Members [of Congress] should be extra vigilant to stave off any threat in the primary and general.
Doug Heye, GOP strategist
While Senate races are dominating the early conversation and House primaries won’t fully take shape for a while, Trump and his boosters are frustrated at congressional Republicans’ inability to move major agenda items such as an Affordable Care Act repeal. “If we’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that members should be extra vigilant to stave off any threat in the primary and general,” says GOP strategist Doug Heye. He should know: Heye worked for Eric Cantor when the majority leader suffered a shocking primary loss in 2014.
Here are five House Republicans who should, at a minimum, remain extra vigilant in 2018.
1. Alabama’s Martha Roby
After Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape bragging about sexual assault leaked last year, a disgusted Roby said she wouldn’t vote for him. Tens of thousands of her enraged constituents then wrote in a tea party challenger on their general election ballots, and Roby nearly lost. Conservative state Rep. Barry Moore is running to test whether that anti-incumbent anger is still boiling.
Roby appears to have gotten the message. She’s cozied up to Trump in White House photo ops and backed his agenda. She’s also spent a lot of time cruising southeastern Alabama. “Martha Roby, in the wake of the Trump controversy, was on a little bit of shaky ground, especially in the rural areas,” says Angi Horn Stalnaker, a Republican consultant who lives in Roby’s district. “But she’s done several events here in the past six months … I think Martha’s probably on better solid ground now than she ever has been.”
2. Virginia’s Barbara Comstock
One of 2018’s premier races involves the second-term congresswoman representing an area that extends from inside the Washington Beltway to beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. A gaggle of Democrats is lining up to challenge Comstock, but she also faces a threat on the right. Comstock said she would not vote for Trump after the Access Hollywood tape, and she opposed the Obamacare repeal bill in the House.
Enter Shak Hill, a businessman and former fighter pilot. The Washington Post reported that Hill hired the campaign manager of Corey Stewart, who narrowly lost a GOP primary for governor this year. Hill is channeling a Stewart-Trump voice by defending Confederate statues and posting on Facebook after Roy Moore’s win: “Drain the Swamp starts in Alabama, and continues here in Virginia!”
3. North Carolina’s Robert Pittenger
Last year Pittenger won his primary by 134 votes, and the Rev. Mark Harris, who finished second, is itching for a rematch. A Baptist pastor, Harris first burst onto the political scene by campaigning for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. And just as Moore’s crusade for a Ten Commandments courthouse display inspired evangelicals in Alabama, the rural areas and small towns of southern North Carolina are friendly to fire and brimstone.
The race could turn on how fired up rural areas are for Harris, versus metro areas favoring Pittenger, who is “very much a Charlotte kind of city/suburban businessman Republican,” says Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bannon and conservative pressure groups are reportedly considering backing Harris. But Pittenger’s close call last year was due in large part to a freshly redrawn district; he’s now had a full term to find his footing and has not wavered in backing Trump.
4. New York’s Dan Donovan
A recent photo posted on Twitter required no explanation: Former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm with his arm wrapped around Bannon. Grimm is grasping for the insurgent banner as fights for his old seat after serving seven months in prison for tax evasion.
— Michael Grimm (@RealMGrimm) October 4, 2017
Grimm was a bombastic presence on Capitol Hill (he once threatened to toss a television reporter over a balcony). Donovan, a former Staten Island district attorney, has been more subdued. “Donovan seems pretty popular and pretty well-established, but Grimm has a devoted fan base too on Staten Island,” Kondik says. “You think of Staten Island as being this in-your-face kind of place. In that way, Grimm might be a better representation of Staten Island than Dan Donovan.”
5. Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan
Last summer, when the House speaker endorsed his party’s nominee but repeatedly criticized Trump’s behavior, the Breitbart crowd and others on the far right hyped up businessman Paul Nehlen’s primary challenge. Trump even gave Nehlen a shoutout on Twitter, though he formally endorsed Ryan. The result: Nehlen earned just 16 percent of the vote. The challenger is back for a rematch, drawing more controversy by associating with conspiracy theorists and saying of a debunked tale about a Democratic pedophilia ring housed at a Washington pizza restaurant: “I believe it is real.” Because of Ryan’s stature this race will draw attention, but in local terms, a Ryan defeat would be like the Green Bay Packers losing to Division III Wisconsin Lutheran College.