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Presidents’ purges of party critics have yielded mixed results

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President Donald J. Trump is seriously considering backing primary challengers to certain incumbent members of his own party in the 2018 midterm elections. He is not the first president to entertain the urge to purge. Former Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt actually followed through on the urge in the 1918 and 1938 midterms, respectively. (I will leave to numerologists the significance of the octaval coincidence of the three midterms.)  

History shows mixed results for intra-party electoral interventions by presidents. Wilson actively sought to defeat five southern state representatives and senators who voted against his declaration of war and subsequent measures to implement it. In all but one instance, the Wilson-backed challengers prevailed. Historian John Milton Cooper attributes Wilson’s successes to the “superheated political atmosphere” of being in the midst of a war plus the president’s being “a native southerner, thereby muffling charges of outside interference.” 

{mosads}Democrats still lost control of Congress in 1918, relinquishing 25 House seats and seven in the Senate, and with it Wilson’s coveted League of Nations Covenant. Nevertheless, Wilson biographer Cooper observes that Wilson’s involvement in the 1918 primaries “would become the only successful party purge by a president in American history.” He adds that Roosevelt’s attempt 20 years later, “to do the same thing on the same turf would fail miserably.” 

Roosevelt’s attempted purge of party disloyalists in 1938 was mainly against southern Democratic incumbents who had opposed his Supreme Court-packing scheme and executive reorganization plan. The challengers FDR backed lost all but one of the races against the incumbents he sought to oust. The incumbents who successfully survived FDR’s purge attempt included Democratic Sens. Walter George (Ga.), Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (S.C.), Millard Tydings (Md.) and Guy Gillette (Iowa). The only FDR-targeted Democrat who lost was Rep. John J. O’Connor (N.Y.), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee.

Democrats still managed to retain control of Congress that year, though by significantly reduced majorities. The survival of most anti-FDR southern Democrats, combined with the Republican pickup of 72 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in 1938, marked the birth of the “conservative coalition” of southern Democrats and Republicans that dominated House politics into the mid-1960s. 

Politics professor, Sidney M. Milkis, concludes: “Since FDR’s unhappy experience in 1938, presidents generally have shied away from open intervention in House and Senate primaries.”  Why, then, would any president in modern times even think about risking deflating his party’s strength in Congress, let alone risk losing control of the institution, by supporting challengers in the primaries? 

For Wilson and Roosevelt the answer was simple: some incumbents had proven unsupportive of  the president’s agenda and more reliable loyalists were needed if the president was to have any legislative or foreign policy successes in the final two years of his term.

President Trump’s inclination to purge GOP critics does not closely resemble either the Wilson or FDR models that were aimed primarily at those who strayed from party orthodoxy. The current president’s anger over Congress’s failure to pass a “repeal-and-replace” health-care bill is the closest to a party policy-related issue on which three Republican senators made the difference by voting against it. But, none of the three is up for reelection in 2018. The one GOP senator who wavered and was semi-jokingly threatened with a challenge by the president at a White House meeting, Dean Heller of Nevada, was brought back into the fold on the final Senate health care vote.

President Trump’s displeasure with some members is more out of personal pique over their criticisms of his leadership style or public statements than over policy differences. Nevertheless, most members of Congress are leery nowadays about the prospect of being “primaried” for whatever reason. Presidential expressions of betrayal (of party, of country or of the president) can attract big donor and allied interest group support for primary challenges, regardless of whether the president personally intervenes.  

The president’s purge posturing may be intended more for keeping GOP members close on important issues than for actually wanting to take them out. The track records of Wilson and FDR are cautionary tales about the potential downsides of presidents directly interfering in primary challenges to incumbent congressmen of their own party.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. The views expressed are solely his own.

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