'Paper tiger': GOP primary threats

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Despite widespread fear of Tea Party challenges, few Republican congressmen have drawn conservative primary foes.

Only Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) appears to be in real danger of losing his primary to a more conservative opponent at this point, though Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) have challengers and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) may soon get one.

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Of the 10 House Republicans identified by the conservative Club for Growth on its website primarymycongressman.com, only Simpson has drawn a challenger so far.

Though other challengers may arise, the fears of many House Republicans have yet to materialize that breaking with conservative orthodoxy could cost them their seats.

“It really looks like a paper tiger to me,” said Cook Political Report House race editor David Wasserman. “Primaries are a coercive force, but they're not a widespread job threat.”

Some House Republicans have privately said they can't vote with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on high-profile bills because they fear being ousted by a fellow Republican.

In the last two election cycles since the Tea Party became a leading force in the GOP, just four House Republicans have lost primary challenges to more conservative opponents who weren’t also congressmen.

Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.) had been elected as a Democrat before switching to the GOP, while Reps. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and John Sullivan (R-Okla.) lost after they were caught napping in their races.

Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who had backed climate change legislation as well as the Wall Street bailout bill, is the only House Republican to lose strictly because of his voting record, though plenty of open-seat House primaries have been won by the more conservative candidate.

In spite of that, House lawmakers have hewed closely to their party's right, often breaking with Republican leadership on a number of votes, shoring themselves up in case they do face foes. GOP strategists say those votes have been motivated as much by concerns of a primary as ideological belief.

“A lot of Republican members in the House and Senate are working hard to cover their right flanks. The danger in that is we seem to be shifting toward an environment where what the base and what independent voters want are diametrically opposed to one another, we're witnessing a bit of an overcorrection where some of these guys may be more vulnerable to challengers in the general election,” said one top national Republican strategist.

“I don't think the vast majority of Republican members are in any danger of losing a primary election at this point. If anything, they need to start looking toward the center and figuring out how they plan to win over independent voters. Because right now that is going to be a much more difficult task than many of them initially thought.”

Senate Republicans have been more willing to buck conservative outside groups. That split has been exposed on a number of votes this year, most prominently during the recent government shutdown, where House Republicans by and large stood with conservative groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action as they antagonized Senate Republicans.

This time around, outside conservative groups seem to be zeroing in on the Senate more than the House.

“The folks who really have resisted the grassroots pressure to stand and fight on ObamaCare are primarily Republican senators,” says Dean Clancy, who heads the PAC for the conservative FreedomWorks. “This week's events will draw more candidates out into primary challenges …. Boehner was a reluctant ally. [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.] was an open opponent.”

A number of the dozen GOP senators facing reelection next year have primary challengers, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s (R-Ga.) decision to retire was likely driven by the threat of a primary. In the past week a trio of right-wing groups endorsed a primary challenger to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed Matt Bevin (R), who is challenging McConnell. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also have second-tier challengers.

Part of that may be due to ideology. But it’s also easier to get donors excited about taking out a senator than a little-known congressman, though it’s also much more expensive to do so.

“It's easier for an outside group to get into a Senate race — it attracts a lot more attention and the House races are a lot more mundane. You can argue to your donors 'we can really effect change if we can turn this one seat' if it's in the Senate,” says Pete Kirkham, a former political director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Conservative groups caution that it’s still very early — and some argue that the recent shutdown conclusion will inspire more candidates to jump in.

Traditionally, many primary challengers don’t jump in until closer to the election, and like with Stearns and Sullivan, sometimes it’s unclear if there’s a primary threat until right before a member has lost.

“It's too early to tell — I don't know what trends there are right now. We've only made three endorsements so far. Last cycle we were heavily in Senate races, in previous cycles we focused more on the House,” says Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller. “I'm sure we'll have more endorsements to announce in the near future.”