For House GOP, a primary problem

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House Republicans worry they may be facing a Todd Akin problem as they seek to hold a number of open competitive seats.

After a rash of recent retirements by entrenched incumbents, Republicans are unexpectedly defending a number of seats in tossup or GOP-leaning districts. And to the national party’s chagrin, many of those controversial candidates are already running or planning to — and if they emerge as the nominee, it could endanger the GOP’s hold on the critical seats.

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Crowded, expensive primaries that produce flawed candidates are nothing new for Republicans. But the epidemic has been most problematic on the Senate side, where gaffe-prone candidates like Akin in Missouri, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware cost them winnable seats the last two cycles. Now, it’s threatening to bleed into congressional races, too.

“The House landscape is littered with land-mine candidates in certain seats and districts,” said Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman. “That doesn't mean the nomination of those candidates will doom Republican chances in those district, but it'd force Republicans to spend more money and effort than they'd like to and give Democrats hope in some of the districts they need to win.”

As Democrats have gleefully welcomed newfound opportunities in swing districts due to recent retirements from Reps. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Tom Latham (R-Iowa) and Rep. Bill Young’s (R-Fla.) death, they’ve salivated at some of the candidates who have already announced.

Democrats are gleeful about the retirements.

“We’re in much better shape than House Republicans – the number of competitive open seats in the battlefield is approaching double digits because moderate Republicans are jumping ship in droves," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Emily Bittner told The Hill following Gerlach's retirement. "In the meantime, these Republicans are facing primaries all over the country where their candidates will battle out a race to the right, putting strong Democratic candidates in even better positions to pick up these open swing seats.”

Privately, Republicans agree with Democrats’ assessments, actively worrying that those landmine candidates could derail their chances. Outside groups say they’re closely watching the races as they develop and could even get involved in the primaries — something that could provoke the ire of Tea Party groups and further inflame tensions within the GOP.

“We're keenly aware of the primary problem and it's something we're in the process of addressing along with other groups,” said one GOP operative. “It's something that's on everyone's radar.”

But to stop a flawed candidate from winning, it could be expensive — and the tab will continue to build well into the general, too. Many of these districts are in expensive media markets, and given the $8 million dollar cash edge the DCCC has over the National Republican Congressional Committee, that’s a bigger problem for the GOP.

Establishment GOP outside groups are likely to play in some of these primaries to boost business-friendly Republicans who can win the general election over more conservative candidates, though they say it’s too early to tell which races they’ll spend on as many are just coming into focus.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made clear it will back establishment Republicans in primaries this year — already supporting Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), an ally of Speaker John Boehner, against his Tea Party challenger and helped new Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) win his primary last year.

“In 2014, the U. S. Chamber will execute the largest voter education campaign in our 102 year history,” said Chamber Political Director Rob Engstrom. “The Chamber will play an active role, early, local and often, to shape the environment now instead of waiting. For those candidates who support American Free Enterprise, they will find no greater friend.”

The center-right American Action Network has also spent money in past primaries and is keeping an eye on these seats.

“American Action Network played a role in primaries in the past, proudly helping to elect Congressman Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) and others. We are absolutely evaluating and closely watching primaries now,” said AAN spokesman Dan Conston.

But establishment Republican groups have to be careful in how they get involved in local races, lest they trigger backlash from local activists.

Tea Party candidates and conservative groups have used establishment groups' involvement to rile up the local base activists in other races and paint their opponents as creatures of Washington.

“I guess pro-bailout, pro-Obama stimulus spending, pro-debt birds of a feather flock together," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola fired off after the Chamber jumped in for Simpson earlier this year.

Here are a few of the pivotal races giving Republicans heartburn:

 

New Jersey’s 3rd District — Retiring Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.)

The former NFL lineman’s decision to retire has opened up a seat President Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012. Former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan (R), a Tea Party-affiliated former Senate candidate, is running and starts the race with early advantages in organization and name identification.

Lonegan made a number of controversial comments during the special election last year against now-Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed him at a large rally in the state, and he embraced a number of conservative social stances.

Republicans are hopeful another strong candidate can emerge, but fear Lonegan will be hard to beat in a primary and would be all but unelectable in the general election.

“The Lonegan thing is not helpful, for sure,” said one national GOP strategist.

Meanwhile, Democrats are all too happy to welcome Lonegan back into politics, as they hope to regain the seat they lost in 2010.

“In a perfect world, he runs every year for something,” laughed one state operative.

 

Virginia’s 10th District — Retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.)

Controversial state Sen. Dick Black (R) announced his bid for Wolf’s slightly GOP-leaning Northern Virginia House seat earlier this week. Black, a staunch social conservative, has compared abortion clinics to Auschwitz and handed out plastic fetuses ahead of a legislative vote on abortion.

In fact, national Republicans say they might not even spend money on the district if Black is the nominee.

“He's like a ticking time bomb,” said one GOP strategist.

Many establishment Republicans are hopeful Virginia Del. Barbara Comstock (R) can unite the GOP field win the nomination, and she’s received early endorsements from both wings of the party — conservative talk radio host Mark Levin and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney are both backing her.

But the biggest variable will be how the nomination ends up being decided. Local Republicans will meet on January 23 to decide whether to choose an open primary or a closed party convention, which are usually dominated by very conservative activists. A half-dozen other Republicans are seriously weighing bids for the seat, so no matter what type of nominating process the GOP chooses, there is a high level of uncertainty over who will emerge from the crowded field.

 

Iowa’s 3rd District — Retiring Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa)

Numerous candidates are lining up to run for Latham’s seat, which Obama won twice.

A crowded field primary field could hurt the GOP, especially since candidates need to win 35 percent of the vote to clinch the nomination. If no candidate reaches that mark, a local convention of typically-conservative delegates will select the nominee. And such a scenario is Republicans heartburn.

“If there end up being five of these guys running, I'm concerned about it going to a convention,” said former Iowa Republican Party Political Director Craig Robinson.

Republicans also worry about Robert Cramer (R), who has close ties with the state’s powerful religious conservative activists and is likely to run. Cramer is a member of the Family Leader, a group of vocal socially conservative activists in the state, and his appointment to a state board was blocked by Democrats because of his views.

 

Pennsylvania’s 6th District — Retiring Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.)

The suburban and exurban district outside of Philadelphia's district leans slightly Republican — Mitt Romney won it by a narrow margin in 2012, though President Obama carried it in 2008 — and is likely to be competitive now that Gerlach is retiring.

No one yet to launch a bid for Gerlach’s seat after his announcement last Monday, but local observers say former gubernatorial and Senate candidate Sam Rohrer (R) is likely to throw his hat in the ring.

Rohrer has deep ties with both the Tea Party and religious conservatives and would be formidable in a primary, but too conservative for the swing district.

“He gives us heartburn,” said GOP strategist.

A number of more establishment Republicans are looking at running, but they could split the more centrist primary vote and give Rohrer a boost if he runs.

“This is a ripe district for an establishment-versus-Tea Party primary,” said Keegan Gibson of the Pennsylvania political website PoliticsPA.

 

Jessica Taylor contributed to this report.