The Primaries That Could Determine the Future of the House

Because these districts are not battlegrounds in the traditional sense, the campaigns aren’t getting much attention. But the ultimate effects could be enormous.

From left to right, Scott Beason, Will Brooke, Paul DeMarco and Chad Mathis at a forum for the Republican primary candidates for Alabama's 6th congrassional district at Hoover's High School in Hoover Ala. on April 21, 2014.
National Journal
Scott Bland
May 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

In Moun­tain Brook, Ala., on a re­cent Wed­nes­day, Will Brooke — a be­spec­tacled busi­ness­man who is run­ning in the GOP primary in his state’s 6th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict — speaks to a crowd in the drive­way of his sis­ter-in-law’s tree-ringed house. “You’re go­ing to elect a Re­pub­lic­an in Alabama 6. Peri­od. End of story,” he says. “We will send a Re­pub­lic­an to Con­gress. So if you’re go­ing to send one, send a good one.”

It’s a pretty fair sum­ma­tion of the stakes in Alabama’s 6th. The dis­trict is among the safest Re­pub­lic­an seats in the coun­try: The cur­rent GOP House mem­ber, Spen­cer Bachus, nev­er got less than 70 per­cent of the vote dur­ing his two dec­ades in of­fice. Bachus is re­tir­ing, open­ing the way for sev­en would-be suc­cessors who are cris­scross­ing the dis­trict for votes ahead of the Re­pub­lic­an primary on June 3. Who­ever wins is vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed to coast to vic­tory in Novem­ber.

Brooke car­ries a copy of the De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence and the Con­sti­tu­tion in his jack­et pock­et, and his first big in­tro­duc­tion to voters was a self-de­scribed “silly video” in which he fired in­creas­ingly large-caliber bul­lets through a copy of the Af­ford­able Care Act be­fore fi­nally toss­ing the dam­aged re­mains in­to a wood-chip­per. Yet the can­did­ate — who says he agrees with tea-party ideas but prefers to la­bel him­self “a solu­tions guy” — isn’t con­ser­vat­ive enough for every­one in the dis­trict. Chad Math­is, a smi­ley-faced or­tho­ped­ic sur­geon, has gathered sig­ni­fic­ant sup­port from what you might call the tea-party es­tab­lish­ment — the Madis­on Pro­ject, Freedom­Works, the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund. On May 1, the power­ful Club for Growth en­dorsed him. “He’s the ideal can­did­ate we look for in races like this,” a spokes­man for the group, Barney Keller, told me, com­par­ing him to Ted Cruz and oth­er con­ser­vat­ive firebrands.

In Wash­ing­ton, the head­line fight this year is for con­trol of the Sen­ate, and the stakes don’t look as high in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, where Re­pub­lic­ans’ 17-seat ma­jor­ity ap­pears quite safe. But the true un­der­card to the Sen­ate fight isn’t the tug-of-war between Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans over a dwind­ling num­ber of purple dis­tricts. It’s the primary cam­paigns in open safe seats like Alabama’s 6th. Be­cause these dis­tricts are not battle­grounds in the tra­di­tion­al sense, the cam­paigns for them aren’t get­ting much at­ten­tion. And they’re not as sexy as primary chal­lenges to in­cum­bents. But the ul­ti­mate ef­fects could be enorm­ous. “Our goal is not to beat in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­ans in primar­ies,” Keller says. “Our goal is to build a sus­tain­able pro-growth ma­jor­ity of the ma­jor­ity, and the way we do that is by fo­cus­ing on what we call ‘A’ races: safe open Re­pub­lic­an House seats.”

There will be at least 45 open House seats throughout the coun­try this year; you could call as many as 23 of them vir­tu­ally safe Re­pub­lic­an dis­tricts, with an­oth­er 15 highly likely to be per­man­ently Demo­crat­ic. Those 23 new Re­pub­lic­ans will rep­res­ent something close to 10 per­cent of the House GOP ma­jor­ity next year.

Who wins these elec­tions could have a dra­mat­ic ef­fect on gov­ern­ing. All but two of the re­tir­ing Re­pub­lic­ans sup­por­ted Speak­er John Boehner’s reelec­tion in Janu­ary 2013; many of the Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for open seats are non­com­mit­tal or even openly hos­tile to the idea of him re­tain­ing the gavel in 2015. Moreover, of the 80 House sig­nat­or­ies to the let­ter de­mand­ing that Obama­care be de­fun­ded be­fore the gov­ern­ment shut­down last year, nearly half were first- or second-term Re­pub­lic­ans from safe seats, as is the mem­ber who cir­cu­lated the let­ter, fresh­man Rep. Mark Mead­ows of North Car­o­lina.

Bachus has been a fairly re­li­able vote for the GOP lead­er­ship dur­ing his ca­reer. As mem­bers like him head to the exits, small pock­ets of Re­pub­lic­an voters are about to de­term­ine what the House GOP will look like go­ing for­ward. 

BATTLE­GROUND: ALABAMA

Alabama’s 6th could make a reas­on­able claim to be­ing the cap­it­al of Red Amer­ica: The re­gion gave George W. Bush his second-highest mar­gin out­side his home state of Texas in 2000, and it was among the staunchest slices of anti-Obama ter­rit­ory in the last two pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

These stat­ist­ics came to life at an April ra­dio for­um in a loc­al high school aud­it­or­i­um — an even bet­ter place than the cafet­er­ia, on that par­tic­u­lar Monday, to get red meat on cam­pus. The sev­en Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates took turns over 90 minutes agree­ing with each oth­er about flat­ten­ing in­come tax rates, cut­ting the de­fi­cit, re­peal­ing and re­pla­cing Obama­care, stop­ping new fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions and rolling back old ones, and elim­in­at­ing the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment.

About an hour in­to the pro­gram, one of the mod­er­at­ors asked if any of the can­did­ates sup­por­ted the Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards — a pro­gram that has be­come ex­ceed­ingly con­tro­ver­sial among the GOP base. None of the can­did­ates raised a hand or voiced sup­port, and the si­lence quickly gave way to ap­plause from the audi­ence, the only such in­ter­rup­tion of the event.

No one is likely to win a ma­jor­ity of the vote in the crowded June primary, so the top two can­did­ates will prob­ably be headed for a run­off in Ju­ly. Pub­lic and private polling shows that of the sev­en can­did­ates, four have real shots at win­ning. They come from dif­fer­ent back­grounds — and geo­graph­ic­ally dis­tinct parts of the dis­trict. The 6th boom­er­angs around down­town Birm­ing­ham like a back­wards “C,” ex­cising most of the metro area’s siz­able Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pop­u­la­tion. The ger­ry­mandered bor­ders take in wealthy, heav­ily white sub­urbs, none bet­ter-off than Moun­tain Brook — or, as some next-door neigh­bors call it, “the Tiny King­dom.” Moun­tain Brook is one of the coun­try’s richest en­claves, home to about 20,000 people and two coun­try clubs. The av­er­age house­hold in the rest of the dis­trict makes less than half as much as one from here.

The town is Will Brooke’s home court. No­tice­ably more of Brooke’s cam­paign signs sprout from front lawns as soon as you cross in­to the Tiny King­dom, where nearly half of his dona­tions ori­gin­ate and where many of his fel­low busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ives make their homes. Brooke’s busi­ness and polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ence are in­ter­twined: He once chaired the state cham­ber of com­merce, and in 2010 he ran the group’s polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee. Brooke’s per­son­al wealth has played a key role in his cam­paign, giv­ing him some of the re­sources ne­ces­sary to beam his pre­vi­ously little-known face to loc­al TVs. His “solu­tions-ori­ented” ap­proach may not in­clude everything pre­scribed by his old or­gan­iz­a­tion, the Busi­ness Coun­cil of Alabama, but it’s im­possible to call him any­thing oth­er than a busi­ness can­did­ate.

State Rep. Paul De­Marco rep­res­ents part of Moun­tain Brook but lives in nearby Home­wood, one of many neigh­bor­ing sub­urbs that are plenty com­fort­able, if not quite as af­flu­ent. A law­yer by trade and a mem­ber of his loc­al cham­bers of com­merce, he has dog­gedly built him­self a found­a­tion for his con­gres­sion­al run. De­Marco has spent nearly a dec­ade in the state Cap­it­ol, and he is a lanky, eager fix­ture at com­munity events all over his dis­trict — and bey­ond. “He’s every­where at once,” says Alabama polit­ic­al con­sult­ant Brent Buchanan.

One even­ing in late April, De­Marco gave a stump speech to five men gathered in the meet­ing room at a fire­house in Mount Olive, a small, rur­al com­munity north of Birm­ing­ham. The at­tendees, who were there for a fire-dis­trict meet­ing, greeted the can­did­ate know­ingly, even though they are miles from his state le­gis­lat­ive dis­trict. De­Marco has helped them with grants, and they’ve taken no­tice of his work. “A lot of the stuff he’s been do­ing in the Le­gis­lature is just com­mon­sense stuff,” said Dwight Sloan, the pres­id­ent of the fire-dis­trict board.

After at­tend­ing oth­er events that even­ing, De­Marco re­turned home, ate a pea­nut-but­ter-and-jelly sand­wich for din­ner a few hours be­fore mid­night, and rose early to cut a rib­bon over the res­ults of a dif­fer­ent grant: new play­ground equip­ment at an ele­ment­ary school. Off to the side, a small new sign bears De­Marco’s name. Wheth­er be­cause of all this polit­ic­al ground­work, or be­cause of his well-stocked cam­paign ac­count, De­Marco is at or near the top of every sur­vey of the dis­trict’s GOP voters.

Moun­tain Brook, Home­wood, and the like are packed about as full as can be, so much of the re­cent growth in Birm­ing­ham’s boom­ing sub­urbs has taken place farther south, in Shelby County, which has doubled in pop­u­la­tion over the last 20 years. Wind­ing res­id­en­tial lanes curl far in­to the green hills that flank the main roads head­ing south from Birm­ing­ham, filling up more and more each year with ad­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an voters. “I think you would say fairly close to eight or nine out of 10 voters are Re­pub­lic­ans in Shelby County,” Freddy Ard, a Birm­ing­ham con­struc­tion-com­pany man­ager who moon­lights as the county GOP chair­man, says with a hint of pride. His county was the plaintiff in last year’s Su­preme Court de­cision strik­ing down a part of the Vot­ing Rights Act that re­quired fed­er­al su­per­vi­sion of Alabama’s re­dis­trict­ing and oth­er elec­tion activ­ity.

Just as Shelby County has a more spread-out, new­er feel to it than the older com­munit­ies closer to Birm­ing­ham, Chad Math­is has the feel of a new­er style of Re­pub­lic­an primary con­tender. While De­Marco made loc­al con­nec­tions in his le­gis­lat­ive ca­pa­city and Brooke did the same through the busi­ness world, Math­is has laid a dif­fer­ent kind of ground­work: He forged ties with some of the na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive groups that even­tu­ally en­dorsed him while vo­lun­teer­ing on Ted Cruz’s Sen­ate bid and oth­er ef­forts. In this cam­paign, Math­is has taken on the role of de­fend­er of the faith, run­ning ra­dio ads cri­ti­ciz­ing his GOP op­pon­ents for past pro­pos­als, dona­tions, and votes that broke from con­ser­vat­ive or­tho­doxy.

The cur­rent rep­res­ent­at­ive isn’t im­mune, either. Math­is’s web­site says his frus­tra­tion with the Wall Street bail­outs of 2008 in­spired him to get more in­volved in polit­ics. Bachus, who chaired the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee for two years, bucked most of his con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues and sup­por­ted the pro­pos­al des­pite in­tense op­pos­i­tion from con­stitu­ents. To crit­ics, votes like that demon­strate when a safe Re­pub­lic­an seat is be­ing wasted. “I think we have to really fo­cus on build­ing a stronger con­ser­vat­ive co­ali­tion in the House,” Math­is told me.

State Sen. Scott Beason comes from the more rur­al, north­ern sec­tion of the dis­trict, where he has es­tab­lished a repu­ta­tion as a hard-line con­ser­vat­ive in the state Le­gis­lature. In nu­mer­ous cases, as with his re­cent bill al­low­ing em­ploy­ees to keep guns locked in their cars at work (which passed the state Sen­ate but died in the House), this has put Beason in con­flict with Alabama’s busi­ness lobby — but en­deared him to a grass­roots con­ser­vat­ive fol­low­ing. “I have sponsored and passed le­gis­la­tion through the years that some people deem con­tro­ver­sial,” Beason says. “The in­ter­est­ing thing is, 80 per­cent of Alabami­ans sup­port those meas­ures.”

He has also said some con­tro­ver­sial things: While wear­ing a wire for an FBI cor­rup­tion in­vest­ig­a­tion in the Le­gis­lature, Beason called Afric­an-Amer­ic­an casino pat­rons “ab­ori­gines” and lost his com­mit­tee chair­man­ship in the en­su­ing up­roar. But that didn’t stop him from win­ning a quarter of the vote in a primary chal­lenge against Bachus in 2012, and his last-second en­trance in­to this race could prove a prob­lem for Math­is, whose cam­paign seeks some of the same voters. Beason’s lack of cam­paign funds prob­ably lim­its the per­cent­age of the elect­or­ate he can cap­ture — but in a crowded primary, he needs only a frac­tion of the vote to make a run­off.

The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce en­dorsed Bachus over Beason in 2012, and he could at­tract more op­pos­i­tion again in 2014 if it looks like his cam­paign is mak­ing moves. So could Math­is; like mag­nets, the out­side groups sup­port­ing him seem to draw the same ant­ag­on­ists from the tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment wherever they go.

Es­tab­lish­ment money isn’t everything, however. Out­side es­tab­lish­ment groups went in big for Re­pub­lic­an Brad­ley Byrne in a spe­cial elec­tion in south­ern Alabama late last year when the con­tro­ver­sial tea parti­er he matched up with in the GOP primary run­off, Dean Young, ap­peared to be run­ning too close for com­fort. Byrne won, but his 4-point mar­gin against the bag­gage-laden Young still frayed nerves.

WIDER IS­SUE

Alabama is only one ex­ample of the fierce fight un­der­way for safe, open House seats. In Geor­gia, the rush of can­did­ates hun­grily eye­ing the Sen­ate has left three un­as­sail­ably Re­pub­lic­an House seats open for new rep­res­ent­a­tion. And un­der-the-radar fights in all three dis­tricts mir­ror the rifts in the na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Party. Bob John­son and Barry Loudermilk, can­did­ates in two of the dis­tricts, are ex­pli­citly run­ning against Boehner’s con­tin­ued lead­er­ship. (Reps. Jack King­ston and Phil Gin­grey, the men they are try­ing to suc­ceed, both voted for the speak­er in 2011 and 2013.)

“In all three of these races, you have the po­ten­tial for either more es­tab­lish­ment, cham­ber-type con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans get­ting elec­ted, or more of these firebrand, tea-party-type folks,” says Joel McEl­han­non, a GOP strategist in the state. A Re­pub­lic­an strategist in Wash­ing­ton puts it more vividly: “Hon­estly, the biggest primary prob­lem we have is Geor­gia — not the Sen­ate but the House. It’s a clown show, and there’s no way around it.”

McEl­han­non works with can­did­ates in two of the open dis­tricts and lives and votes in the third. He may be track­ing the Geor­gia con­gres­sion­al races more closely than any­one. Yet even he can’t claim much in­sight in­to the po­ten­tial out­comes. “Frankly,” he says, “it’s hard for any­one to know what’s go­ing on, be­cause nobody can do much ad­vert­ising.”

The Sen­ate race and Gov. Nath­an Deal’s reelec­tion run have sucked up most of the state’s polit­ic­al funds, mak­ing the House cam­paigns hard-to-parse grass­roots af­fairs. That means the even­tu­al res­ult could sur­prise. It also means an out­side group with a few hun­dred thou­sand bucks to spare could step in and eas­ily be­come the loudest voice in the room on the ques­tion of who gets a shot at a life­time con­gres­sion­al gig.

This is ex­actly what happened in two early primar­ies, one in North Car­o­lina and one in West Vir­gin­ia — but with op­pos­ing res­ults. In North Car­o­lina’s con­ser­vat­ive 7th Dis­trict, where Demo­crat­ic Rep. Mike McIntyre is re­tir­ing, the real con­test was the primary battle between Re­pub­lic­ans Dav­id Rouzer and Woody White. White cri­ti­cized Rouzer for get­ting sup­port from House Minor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor and oth­er Wash­ing­ton Re­pub­lic­ans and called him soft on im­mig­ra­tion; in re­sponse, three es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented groups spent nearly $500,000 on late, un­answered ad­vert­ising bash­ing White. In the end, Rouzer won con­vin­cingly.

In West Vir­gin­ia, by con­trast, the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund led a col­lec­tion of anti­es­tab­lish­ment out­side groups dir­ect­ing sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars in­to the 2nd Dis­trict on be­half of Alex Mooney, one of sev­en Re­pub­lic­ans gun­ning for the open seat there. This week, Mooney claimed the nom­in­a­tion.

MIR­ROR IM­AGE

The in­tern­al battle over open safe seats comes with lower stakes on the Demo­crat­ic side, giv­en that the party is un­likely to win con­trol of the House this year. Nev­er­the­less, there are still plenty of safe Demo­crat­ic seats up for grabs, as well as plenty of people who want to win them — and the out­come will help shape the party’s fu­ture in Wash­ing­ton.

No group is tak­ing a keen­er in­terest in those seats than EMILY’s List. The or­gan­iz­a­tion has one goal: Elect pro-abor­tion-rights Demo­crat­ic wo­men to loc­al, state, and fed­er­al of­fice. “Be­cause of the way things look right now, we could add to the ranks of Demo­crat­ic wo­men even if it’s a tough up­hill battle for Demo­crats over­all,” says one strategist who works with the PAC.

The num­ber of Demo­crat­ic wo­men in the House has in­creased five­fold since EMILY’s List formed in 1985, ac­cord­ing to track­ing by Rut­gers Uni­versity’s Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Wo­men and Polit­ics. So­ci­et­al shifts can take much of the cred­it, but EMILY’s List has also played a key role in the trans­form­a­tion. And while plenty of can­did­ates en­dorsed by the group con­test and win battle­ground seats, ar­gu­ably its biggest gains have come from help­ing wo­men ad­vance through lower-budget primar­ies in safe Demo­crat­ic dis­tricts. That’s where the money the or­gan­iz­a­tion raises from its 3-mil­lion-mem­ber list goes fur­thest.

In 2012, con­tri­bu­tions from EMILY’s List mem­bers helped keep Demo­crat Michelle Lu­jan Grisham’s cam­paign afloat when she was run­ning in third place in an open House primary in New Mex­ico. As the race between two male front-run­ners turned nasty, Lu­jan Grisham rock­eted in­to the lead, with the help of $100,000 in in­de­pend­ent spend­ing by a di­vi­sion of EMILY’s List. She now has a second-floor of­fice at the Cap­it­ol.

This year, EMILY’s List has already en­dorsed can­did­ates in more than half of the safely Demo­crat­ic open-seat primar­ies. In North Car­o­lina, the group helped state Rep. Alma Adams win her crowded primary, without a run­off, in early May. After sup­port­ing Wendy Greuel in her los­ing bid to be­come the first fe­male may­or of Los Angeles in 2013, EMILY’s List is now try­ing to help her take over re­tir­ing Rep. Henry Wax­man’s safe seat. In Ari­zona, Mari­copa County Su­per­visor Mary Rose Wil­cox has the group’s sup­port ahead of her run for a deep-blue dis­trict in Phoenix.

As hun­dreds of Demo­crats, in­clud­ing some prom­in­ent male law­makers, flooded a Wash­ing­ton hotel ball­room at the end of April to fete EMILY’s List, Wil­cox spoke about her — and her al­lies’ — ra­tionale for get­ting in­volved in a con­gres­sion­al seat guar­an­teed to stay Demo­crat­ic. “Wo­men bring a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive,” she said. Their per­spect­ive is gain­ing in­flu­ence with­in Cap­it­ol Hill’s Demo­crat­ic caucus, which is now al­most one-third fe­male. That pro­por­tion will likely be even high­er when Demo­crats someday reac­quire the House ma­jor­ity.

BOEHNER’S FU­TURE

Back in Alabama, the can­did­ate for­um at the high school aud­it­or­i­um is over, and Chad Math­is is tak­ing a minute to pon­der what the fu­ture holds for John Boehner and oth­er House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers. Math­is, who hasn’t taken a po­s­i­tion on the House GOP lead­er­ship, says, “It’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing what hap­pens with that over the next ses­sion.” 

“I don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen now,” he adds. “I’m just fo­cus­ing on try­ing to get there.”

Al­though “in­ter­est­ing” might be a bit of an un­der­state­ment, Math­is is right: We don’t know what will hap­pen to Boehner in 2015. But we don’t need to wait un­til the next Con­gress to start mak­ing edu­cated guesses. The an­swers will play out across the coun­try over the course of this primary sea­son.

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