GOP primary politics pose problems for Speaker Boehner and his deputies

Republican primary politics is going to make Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) life difficult over the next year.

The gerrymandered makeup of the House increases the chances that the lower chamber will stay in the GOP’s hands. But it’s been a headache for governing.

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Many House Republicans don’t sweat their general elections. But they do fret about primary challenges.

With impending votes on controversial policy matters such as immigration and an increase in the debt ceiling, Boehner and his lieutenants are facing a challenging stretch.

Several key GOP incumbents already have primary contests, including Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).

Both lawmakers were among those who bucked their GOP leadership team to oppose the farm bill last week. Shuster initially voted “yes,” then changed his mind on the House floor.

GOP incumbents representing safe districts are keenly aware they are under the microscope of influential conservative advocacy groups that “score” votes on key bills and amendments.

In December, right-leaning groups opposed Boehner’s “Plan B” fiscal-cliff bill, which was also opposed by Democrats. The Speaker subsequently pulled the legislation, weakening his hand in negotiations with the White House.

At the time, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said, “I think that there were members that are so gun shy about primaries that they weren’t willing to take a risk.”

Shortly thereafter, the right-leaning Club For Growth established a website, PrimaryMyCongressman.com, aimed at lawmakers they consider to be “Republicans in Name Only,” or RINOs.

Ten House GOP members are highlighted on the website.

These lawmakers, including National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman (NRCC) Greg Walden (Ore.), earned their spot on the list due to alleged infractions against conservative ideology.

Hours before the House voted on the doomed farm bill, Club for Growth President Chris Chocola sent out a stark warning to members.

“PrimaryMyCongressman.com roster could change after House Farm Bill Vote. SHOULD be an easy vote on such an awful bill,” @chrischocola tweeted.

Another advocacy group, Heritage Action, also sends out influential whipping notices to lawmakers on Capitol Hill that certain votes will be included on the year-end scorecard, cited by many conservative groups as a test of true ideology.

Shortly following Thursday’s farm bill defeat, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) explained, “Well, you had Club for Growth, and you had Heritage and you had a lot of Republican members who, I suppose, thought it was too much money.” He also noted that the measure cuts billions from federal programs.

Former NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), who remains an active member in the House GOP’s campaign arm, scoffed at the notion that a vote for the farm bill would have caused one of his GOP colleagues to lose their reelection races.

“I’ve seen very few, if any, members who have lost because of the farm vote. I can’t think of a single one in my entire career and I don’t think it’s likely to happen now. Then again, I think some people just don’t want the bother of a primary and they don’t like being on lists,” Cole said.

“[Republican lawmakers] are afraid of their own voters to a certain extent because we have seen Republican members primaried — both in Senate races and House races — probably a little bit more than you’ve seen on the Democratic side. Last year there were upsets ... that came out of nowhere,” Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center of Politics said in an interview.

Current members such as Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) defeated veteran GOP lawmakers in last year’s primary contests without the backing of Club for Growth. Both lawmakers voted “no” on the farm bill last week.

Leadership officials are not pleased that six committee chairmen rejected the farm bill.

A high-ranking GOP leadership source said, “These guys all have gavels thanks to the majority ... and [the House] has to be functional in order to be retained. This is the kind of stuff, particularly with immigration and the debt-ceiling deal in front of us, that raises questions. If we can’t successfully navigate those types of things, then we won’t be in the majority — and it takes unity to do that.”

Cole noted that, going forward, it will be more difficult to pass immigration bills and government-funding measures in light of the farm bill’s demise.

“Unfortunately what we showed was you have to have Democratic votes” to pass major legislation in the House — a fact that weakens the GOP’s position in negotiations with Democrats on a debt-ceiling increase bill, Cole explained.