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Trump lacks leverage with Freedom Caucus

Trump lacks leverage with Freedom Caucus
© Greg Nash

President Trump is thundering at members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus over the collapse of the -ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill, but the conservative movement is showing little appetite so far for backing up Trump and punishing Freedom Caucus members at the ballot box.

House GOP leadership pulled its -ObamaCare bill last month in the face of Republican opposition from both moderates and Freedom Caucus members. Trump soon pinned the blame on the Freedom Caucus and threatened members who opposed the legislation with primary election challengers in 2018.

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“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Trump tweeted.

The president also singled out Freedom Caucus members Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) in another tweet.

Dan Scavino Jr., Trump’s director of social media, escalated his boss’s online attacks with his own tweet calling on Trump supporters to oust Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashHillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House votes to condemn alleged hysterectomies on migrant women House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it MORE (R-Mich.) in a primary.

The attacks came as the House GOP and the White House try to restart the ObamaCare replacement process by winning over members of the Freedom Caucus.

But these members will likely have little reason to worry about Trump’s attacks in districts they won by larger margins than Trump and where the GOP’s American Health Care Act (AHCA) was heavily unpopular.

Trump received an avalanche of pushback from fellow Republicans after suggesting he’d take on lawmakers at the polls. Fox News host Sean Hannity, normally one of Trump’s staunchest allies in the media, defended the Freedom Caucus and called Trump’s anger “misplaced.” And Freedom Caucus members, many of whom were allies of Trump during the campaign, were quick to fire their own shots and dismiss the prospect of a Trump-backed primary challenge.

Despite Trump’s intraparty threats, conservative groups that opposed the AHCA continue to stand firmly behind Freedom Caucus members, many of whom they have backed in past elections. Groups such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action pledged their support in a Tuesday afternoon Twitter campaign, #StandWithHFC, that inspired a flurry of tweets from rank-and-file activists pledging to back Freedom Caucus members.

“We’re going to stand by folks that are champions on our issues,” James Davis, a spokesman for Charles and David Koch’s network of organizations, told The Hill. “We’re really far out from any kinds of elections at this point, but we’re going to stand with those folks.”

Koch-affiliated groups Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity are reportedly working to create a seven-figure fund to back members who opposed the repeal bill. Conservatives wanted to immediately roll back Medicaid expansion and called the proposed tax credits to help cover insurance purchases a new government entitlement.

“The political fallout of supporting a bill that didn’t address the rising costs of healthcare would be greater than opposing the previous House bill,” Davis said.

A poll published in the wake of the bill’s defeat confirmed the notion that siding with Trump and backing the legislation would have ultimately hurt Freedom Caucus members with constituents back at home.

A survey conducted by GOP pollster WPA Research found that the AHCA was unpopular in the districts of more than a dozen caucus members. While those polled largely preferred a full repeal and replace, most had more favorable opinions of ObamaCare than of the House GOP bill.

“Everyone should take any threat like that seriously and prepare for it,” said Brian Phillips, a former staffer for Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzConservatives seize on New York Post story to push Section 230 reform Changing suburbs threaten GOP hold on Texas Hillicon Valley: Trump refuses to condemn QAnon | Twitter revises its policy, lets users share disputed article | Google sees foreign cyber threats MORE’s (R-Texas) presidential campaign who now works for WPA Research.

“However, if you look at most of the Freedom Caucus districts, most of the members ran ahead of Trump in those districts.”

Plus, history is on the side of sitting incumbents, making it hard for primary challengers to prevail without significant resources behind their campaigns and help from outside groups — an unlikely prospect, since many of the best-funded Republican groups oppose the bill.

Freedom Caucus members represent safe districts, but the GOP establishment was able to successfully knock off one in 2016 after millions of dollars were spent to defeat then-Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).

“Challenging an incumbent is historically difficult, but it is made all the more difficult if you’re going to choose an issue like RyanCare, which is opposed by a 2-to-1 margin in many of these districts,” Phillips said.

It’s too early to tell if Trump will follow through on his primary threats and raise the necessary funds to support a credible challenge, or if outside groups supporting the president will follow suit and take on Republicans who have rejected his agenda.

Pro-Trump group Great America Alliance currently has no plans to rally against the Freedom Caucus, and co-chair Eric Beach said the group is focusing its fire on Democrats, particularly over their opposition to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

“Our focus is going to continue to be on the Democrats,” Beach told The Hill. “The Freedom Caucus was part of the Trump coalition and victory in November, and I think what you’re going to see is them all come together and keep pushing on healthcare reform.”

For now, at least, Trump is seeking a fresh start with conservatives. The White House capped off a rocky week with the Freedom Caucus by presenting members with a deal to revive the repeal bill. The proposal would allow states to choose to apply for waivers to repeal two ObamaCare regulations that conservatives believe are behind rising health insurance premiums.

Trump’s willingness to compromise, Beach said, indicates that the primary threats will likely be in the rearview mirror come 2018 once Republicans come together on healthcare and other issues.

“I think it’s going to be a moot point because they’re going to come together and get the train moving,” he said.