As McCarthy and Co. Make Leadership Runs, What Would Their Primary Challengers Say?

After Cantor, moving up in leadership will probably attract attention and future challengers for House Republicans. Their past primaries may show what issues they’ll have to defend in the future.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 08: House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to the media while flanked by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R), after attending the weekly House Republican conference at the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. Speaker Boehner spoke on various issues including unemployment insurance. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Zach C. Cohen
June 18, 2014, 1:05 a.m.

Nobody should as­sume that the new ad­di­tions to House lead­er­ship this sum­mer will ever face any­thing like the primary trouble that out­go­ing House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor just suffered. But Can­tor’s loss paints a tar­get on his pro­spect­ive re­place­ments, whose fu­ture primar­ies may be con­tested with more spir­it than the past ones.

All of them rep­res­ent safely Re­pub­lic­an dis­tricts, but any primary is­sues that have flared in the past, in­clud­ing im­mig­ra­tion, could rise to a new level un­der the mag­ni­fic­a­tion of party lead­er­ship in fu­ture years.

Im­mig­ra­tion, the is­sue that eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or Dave Brat trum­peted in his win­ning primary cam­paign over Can­tor in Vir­gin­ia, has already played a prom­in­ent role in House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy’s loc­al polit­ics this term, even though the po­ten­tial ma­jor­ity lead­er is run­ning un­op­posed. In Decem­ber, Mc­Carthy faced protests, sit-ins, hun­ger strikes, and a 285-mile “pil­grim­age” to his dis­trict of­fice by pro-re­form pro­test­ers. The op­pos­i­tion was ubi­quit­ous, in­clud­ing “im­mig­rants, priests, CEOs, po­lice of­ficers, and Re­pub­lic­an donors” in Bakersfield over his im­mig­ra­tion stance, ac­cord­ing to The Wall Street Journ­al. “I can’t go any­where in the com­munity without be­ing pro­tested,” he told the news­pa­per. “I don’t see how that is pro­duct­ive.”

But protests on the oth­er side of the is­sue in­cluded ant­ag­on­ist­ic TV ad­vert­ising from act­iv­ists who thought Mc­Carthy’s stance on im­mig­ra­tion was too soft. As Roy Beck, the CEO of the anti-im­mig­ra­tion group Num­bers USA, dir­ec­ted the group’s mem­bers to call Mc­Carthy and op­pose le­gis­la­tion that provided “am­nesty” to un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, the group Cali­for­ni­ans for Pop­u­la­tion Sta­bil­iz­a­tion aired ads say­ing Mc­Carthy wanted to “leg­al­ize 11 mil­lion il­leg­al ali­ens.” Bakersfield tea-party act­iv­ists said im­mig­ra­tion-re­form pro­gress in the House could lead to an at­tack on Mc­Carthy’s right.

Amer­ic­an Ac­tion Net­work, a pro-re­form group, ended up de­cid­ing to buy its own TV time to de­fend Mc­Carthy. The ad said Mc­Carthy’s “con­ser­vat­ive ap­proach” on im­mig­ra­tion in­cluded great­er bor­der se­cur­ity.

Be­sides his well-doc­u­mented at­ten­tion to his dis­trict, though, Mc­Carthy has an­oth­er thing work­ing in his fa­vor to keep im­mig­ra­tion — or any oth­er is­sue — from be­com­ing a primary prob­lem: Cali­for­nia’s all-party, top-two primar­ies make it harder to chal­lenge Demo­crats from the left or Re­pub­lic­ans from the right.

Those look­ing to re­place Mc­Carthy as ma­jor­ity whip, pending his move up to the ma­jor­ity lead­er’s of­fice, are in sim­il­arly safe Re­pub­lic­an seats. And their past ex­per­i­ence with primar­ies has been not­ably spare, of­fer­ing few hints on what any fu­ture chal­lenger would do if their lead­er­ship roles were to an­ger the GOP base.

Rep. Steve Scal­ise has had little primary op­pos­i­tion in Louisi­ana; in fact, nobody has de­clared an in­terest in chal­len­ging the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee chair­man so far this year. He has col­lec­ted more than $1 mil­lion in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, just in case.

Mean­while, Rep. Peter Roskam has nev­er had a primary chal­lenger as a con­gress­man. Even when he was first elec­ted in 2006, Roskam ac­tu­ally won the GOP nom­in­a­tion un­op­posed in his Illinois dis­trict, hav­ing scared off oth­er po­ten­tial hope­fuls.

As for un­der­dog Rep. Marlin Stutz­man, he eas­ily beat two chal­lengers for his party’s nom­in­a­tion this year, after fa­cing no op­pos­i­tion in the In­di­ana Re­pub­lic­an ranks at all in 2012. He was ap­poin­ted to the House bal­lot in 2010, re­pla­cing Rep. Mark Souder after the primary — when Stutz­man had fin­ished as a run­ner-up to Dan Coats for the GOP Sen­ate nom­in­a­tion. In the pro­cess, though, he won the sup­port of then-Sen. Jim De­Mint and Red­State ed­it­or Er­ick Er­ick­son, who called Stutz­man “a con­ser­vat­ive rock star.”

Yet if there’s any­thing we learned from Can­tor’s loss, tides can change quickly on law­makers, es­pe­cially when their at­ten­tion turns to Wash­ing­ton — and, more im­port­antly, when someone makes the ef­fort to test them.

“I think Mc­Carthy is not as pop­u­lar as his num­bers show,” Mc­Carthy’s 2012 Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger, auto-parts store man­ager Eric Park­er told the Bakersfield Cali­for­ni­an. “He has not had any com­pet­i­tion. So is he really pop­u­lar or is he the only game in town? We’re go­ing to find out.”

The res­ults aren’t al­ways, or even of­ten, dra­mat­ic. Mc­Carthy car­ried his all-party primary that year with more than 70 per­cent of the vote.

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