As the prospects for passing comprehensive immigration reform have dwindled, a favorite pundit talking point has emerged: "House Republicans are voting so conservatively because they fear a campaign challenge from their right." The mere threat of primaries has become the catch-all for explaining Republican opposition in the House.
But as the argument became ubiquitous in 2013, something funny happened. The number of conservative challengers going up against GOP members of Congress hasn't developed as had been expected. In fact, there are currently as many notable Democratic primary challengers to incumbents as Republican intraparty battles. Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho is the only Republican currently facing a credible primary challenger, who is backed by the Club for Growth. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, facing blowback over passing a subsidy-filled farm bill, is the other member facing a similar threat. Freshman Rep. Rodney Davis is facing former Miss America Erika Harold in the Republican primary in Illinois, but few expect her to win.
Unlike in 2010 and 2012, when Republican divisions were front and center, there are as many noteworthy Democratic primary challengers this time around. Rep. Mike Honda of California is facing a serious challenge from well-funded former Obama campaign staffer Ro Khanna. Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina is favored to win renomination, but faces an African-American challenger who could give him a headache in a district where blacks make up a majority of the Democratic electorate. Against Rep. Gary Miller, their top GOP target in California, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is backing a different challenger (Pete Aguilar) than EMILY's List (Eloise Reyes)—with a well-known former congressman (Joe Baca) also in the mix.
Meanwhile, only two members—GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and John Campbell of California—have announced their retirement so far, a low number that suggests members are hardly running scared from their next election.
Even in the Senate, where Liz Cheney is running against Sen. Mike Enzi in Wyoming and businessman Matt Bevin is running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, the challengers don't exactly fit the tea-party mold. Cheney is a defense hawk who wants more military spending, not in line with the fiscal austerity backed by most tea partiers. Her support for gay marriage also makes her an outlier among many conservative activists. Bevin, an investment executive whose family business is based in Connecticut, seems as much a political opportunist as a true-blue tea partier. In tone, he's sounding a more conservative message than McConnell, but his biography reads more like Mitt Romney's. (Democrats face their own divisive primary in Hawaii, pitting appointed Sen. Brian Schatz against Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.)
Other signs abound that the tea-party wave of 2010-2012 has peaked. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., up for reelection next year, is openly taking on the conservative base on immigration without facing any retribution from a conservative challenger. Sen. John Cornyn, who took conservative flak for supporting moderates as NRSC chair from 2010-2012, is expected to cruise to another term without primary opposition in Texas. The Club for Growth, agitating for intraparty challengers, has rallied behind only one GOP target so far. Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller, the erratic tea-party insurgent in 2010, isn't polling as well among Republicans in his second go-around.
All this is a far cry from the deeply antiestablishment, anti-incumbent sentiment that swept Washington for much of the last decade. Despite polling that shows Congress is as unpopular as ever, the intensity that drove Republican primary challengers seems to be abating. Over the last two elections, three sitting Republican senators were defeated in the primaries. Four House members apiece lost primaries in each of the last three House elections (not including the member-versus-member redistricting matchups). As significant is the fact that in the last two elections, at least 20 representatives (20 in 2010, 20-plus in 2012) won less than 60 percent of the vote in primaries—unusually high numbers that illustrated the anger at Washington across the country. Those numbers don't look like they'll be matched next year.
There are many reasons why that's the case. Conservative activists have already pushed some of their biggest enemies out of the Congress, leaving fewer targets behind. Outside groups aren't raising money the way they did in 2010 at the apex of the tea-party wave and in 2012 during the high-stakes presidential election. The disappointment felt by the grassroots after Obama's reelection sapped some of the base's enthusiasm. Jim DeMint, the main agitator inside the Senate, is now operating from the outside, with less political influence.
This doesn't mean the clout of the conservative grassroots has declined. The base's desire to connect Obamacare repeal to the funding of the government budget is already opposed by party rank-and-file, and could spark another GOP schism. This fall, expect messy battles over spending and the debt ceiling that divided the party's establishment and tea-party wing last year. But it would be unusual for these issues alone to drive a wave of primary opposition.
The tea party has been a victim of its own successes, pushing the center of gravity in the House decidedly rightward. But as the movement has been effective in checking Obama's agenda, the urgency for replacing Republican compromisers has diminished. After a wave of not-ready-for-primetime tea-party candidates famously imploded in the last two elections, Republicans fear an encore. They may get a whimper, instead.
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