House primaries in Ga., Calif., show pressures buffeting GOP

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Posted: Jun 06, 2016 4:36 AM
House primaries in Ga., Calif., show pressures buffeting GOP

WASHINGTON (AP) — In two House Republican strongholds — a Georgia district sprawling from Atlanta's exurbs to the Alabama line and another in California's Central Valley — upcoming elections illustrate the anti-establishment mood faced by GOP candidates.

Dentist and former local mayor Drew Ferguson is vying for the Republican nomination in a July runoff for the open Georgia seat, calling himself "a conservative outsider" and boasting of spurring economic development. He sometimes sounds like presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, saying that border fences are "not mean-spirited" and supporting halting refugees from nations "whose populations mean us harm."

Yet many religious conservatives and Washington-based conservative groups such as the Club for Growth prefer state Sen. Mike Crane. His opposition to narrow tax breaks led him to vote against lowered state levies for filmmakers — even though television's "The Walking Dead" films in the area — and he's taken hard-line views against gay marriage and for making English Georgia's official language.

In California, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy should easily dominate Tuesday's primary, in which candidates of all parties compete for two spots on November's ballot. The $6.4 million that McCarthy amassed for his own campaign — he's also provided plenty more for GOP colleagues — crushes the $31,000 raised by his best-financed opponent, conservative Republican Ken Mettler.

McCarthy aides say he travels home most weekends anyway and scheduled a half-dozen Memorial Day events. Unforgotten is 2014, when the congressional career of the previous majority leader, GOP Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, ended after a primary ambush by an unknown, underfunded college professor, Dave Brat, who's now in the House.

Republicans are virtually assured of keeping the Georgia and California seats in November's general elections, but these preliminary battles underscore the stakes for the party. Races like Georgia's will help determine whether a fresh influx of ideological rebels will make the already rambunctious House GOP even harder for its leaders to steer, while McCarthy's contest shows a lingering unease from Cantor's fall.

"When you're head of an organization that has a 15 percent approval rating, you worry," said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman and head of the House GOP campaign committee.

Not one House GOP incumbent has been ousted this year in primaries, even as the public seems intensely unhappy with Washington. Their survival has surprised some, just eight months after conservatives drove House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, into retirement, and as Trump vanquished political rivals.

At least one Republican incumbent will lose Tuesday: Redrawn lines pit Reps. Renee Ellmers and George Holding against each other for the nomination in one North Carolina district. With congressional primaries remaining in more than half the states, other incumbents in Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma could tumble too. And groups from competing ends of the party's ideological spectrum are engaging.

The American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund, aligned with party leaders, helped House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania and Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas survive primary scares.

According to figures from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $1.8 million helping Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., defeat a tea party challenger in a March primary and helped an ally win the nomination for an open Kentucky seat.

On the other side, the Club for Growth spent $1.1 million to help conservative businessman Warren Davidson capture the GOP nomination for Boehner's vacated seat, a symbolic triumph, and disbursed $800,000 against Ellmers, according to the center. The House Freedom Fund — run by conservatives in the rebellious House Freedom Caucus — spent more than $100,000 to help businessman Jim Banks win a Republican primary in Indiana.

Potentially vulnerable GOP incumbents have survived primaries in Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Alabama and Georgia. Party operatives credit lawmakers' heightened attention to home-town concerns since Cantor's defeat.

"Our members are doing their job and talking to their people," said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, a leader of the House GOP political organization.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has his own long-shot conservative challenger in an August primary. Businessman Paul Nehlen's shoestring effort is far outgunned by Ryan's well-funded campaign and his popularity, but Nehlen is backed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Ryan has become a fundraising behemoth for his party, raising more than $30 million since becoming speaker last fall, according to Spencer Zwick, his national finance chairman.

Ryan has appeared at 53 fundraisers in 36 cities this year and attended dozens of others in Washington, campaign aides say. These have included helping raise money and writing checks for colleagues facing primary challenges, including Georgia Reps. Barry Loudermilk and Doug Collins and California's Doug LaMalfa and Paul Cook.

"That's part of protecting the working majority" Republicans have in the House, a key Ryan goal, Zwick said.

Republicans control 247 of the House's 435 seats, including a vacancy sure to go Republican, and it's the party's high-water mark since 1931. But the presidential election should draw added Democratic voters, perhaps costing GOP seats in moderate districts in Florida, Virginia, Nevada and Illinois.

While Democrats nurse hopes of capturing the chamber, the more likely outcome is a smaller Republican majority with a greater proportion of hard-edged conservatives reluctant to compromise. Top Republicans and conservative leaders say that is not a worry.

"We're consistent with Republican positions," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. "Why is that a concern?"