GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket

GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket

Republican strategists are worried their House majority is increasingly endangered by weak top-of-the-ticket candidates.

The GOP fears House candidates down ballot could be the casualties if moderate and independent voters balk at backing Republicans because of opposition to conservative Senate and gubernatorial candidates.

The concerns have been a theme of this year’s primary season, underlined once again with Tuesday’s results.

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In Minnesota, conservative Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (R) defeated former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), a much more traditional politician seeking a comeback after eight years away from elected office. 

Hours earlier, another arch conservative won the GOP nomination for governor in Kansas after Gov. Jeff Colyer conceded defeat to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a week after their state’s primary left the two candidates separated by just a few hundred votes. 

Kobach and Johnson both ran in the mold of Trump. Trump publicly endorsed Kobach. He did not weigh in on the Minnesota contest, but Pawlenty’s opponent hammered the former governor for his public criticism of the president. 

Some Republican strategists had hoped that having Pawlenty and Colyer at the top of the tickets would help insulate down-ballot House candidates from Democratic attempts to tie them to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE.

In Kansas, Republicans are worried about Rep. Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderBottom line Amanda Adkins wins GOP primary to challenge Rep. Sharice Davids Sharice Davids to vote for Trump impeachment articles: 'The facts are uncontested' MORE (R), whose district voted for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida The Hill's Campaign Report: Presidential polls tighten weeks out from Election Day More than 50 Latino faith leaders endorse Biden MORE in 2016. The party also is defending a seat left vacant by Rep. Lynn JenkinsLynn Haag JenkinsBottom line Former GOP Rep. Costello launches lobbying shop Kansas Republican dropping Senate bid to challenge GOP rep MORE (R), who is retiring. 

“Kobach is hated by independents. He energizes the [Democrats] to get out the vote,” said one Kansas Republican, who asked not to be identified while voicing concerns about his party’s ticket. “This race will be nationalized.”

In Minnesota, where advisers close to Reps. Erik PaulsenErik Philip PaulsenMinnesota Rep. Dean Phillips wins primary Pass USMCA Coalition drops stance on passing USMCA Two swing-district Democrats raise impeachment calls after whistleblower reports MORE (R) and Jason LewisJason Mark LewisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump and Biden vie for Minnesota | Early voting begins in four states | Blue state GOP governors back Susan Collins GOP Senate candidate says Trump, Republicans will surprise in Minnesota Tina Smith wins Democratic Senate primary in Minnesota MORE (R) urged Pawlenty to get into the race in the first place, some are concerned that Johnson will act as a drag on their chances in both congressmen’s districts; Hillary Clinton won Paulsen’s district, and President Trump won Lewis’s district by just a single percentage point. The GOP also hopes to win seats being vacated by Reps. Tim WalzTim WalzGOP Senate candidate says Trump, Republicans will surprise in Minnesota Presidential race tightens in Minnesota as Trump plows resources into state National Guard activated in Minneapolis after homicide suspect's reported suicide MORE (D), the Democratic nominee for governor, and Rick NolanRichard (Rick) Michael NolanMinnesota Rep. Pete Stauber glides to victory in GOP primary Hold off on anti-mining hysteria until the facts are in Minnesota New Members 2019 MORE (D).

Paulson and Lewis “are both in more trouble with a weak gubernatorial nominee, and we can forget about picking up” Walz and Nolan’s seats, said one Republican strategist familiar with the Minnesota contests.

Not everyone agrees with that analysis.

Lewis, serving his first term in office, said Johnson’s win would energize a Republican base that needs to turn out in November.

“He’s obviously motivated the grass roots, and it’s one more piece of evidence that the grass roots are alive and well no matter what the pundits say,” Lewis told The Hill. “The Democrats are energized, and you need someone that’s energized the base as a counterbalance to that.”

Democrats need to net 23 House seats to win back the majority, putting a premium on every potentially competitive seat. The barest slip in GOP turnout could cost Republicans the Speaker’s gavel.

Republicans in Virginia, where arch conservative Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman Corey Stewart won the Republican nomination to face off against Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats call for declassifying election threats after briefing by Trump officials Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice Trump meets with potential Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett at White House MORE (D), face an even more severe situation.

Stewart, a Minnesota native, is perhaps best known around Virginia for defending Confederate memorials and statues, hardly a winning issue in a commonwealth increasingly dominated by socially liberal suburbs and exurbs of Washington, D.C. 

A recent Virginia Commonwealth University survey found Kaine leading Stewart by a 49 percent to 26 percent margin. Kaine held huge leads in Northern Virginia, where just 19 percent of voters backed Stewart; among women, 56 percent to 21 percent; and among voters with a college degree, 55 percent to 21 percent.

Virginia Democrats are targeting Reps. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockLive coverage: House holds third day of public impeachment hearings Gun debate raises stakes in battle for Virginia legislature Progressives face steep odds in ousting incumbent Democrats MORE (R), Dave Brat (R) and Scott TaylorScott William TaylorBottom line Bottom line Republican Scott Taylor wins Virginia primary, to face Elaine Luria in rematch MORE (R) in November. Trump won Brat's and Taylor’s districts by less than 10 points each, while Clinton won Comstock’s district by 10.

In an indication of how differently the top of the ticket candidates will relate to their down-ballot compatriots, Kaine spent this week campaigning with the Democrats running against all three incumbent Republicans. He has held more than 30 events with all 11 Democrats running for Congress in Virginia since the June 12 primary.

Comstock, Brat and Taylor have all refused to say whether they support Stewart, and none have campaigned alongside him. 

A Taylor spokesman drew direct contrasts between the congressman and the Senate candidate over their respective responses to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year. Comstock did not attend a July event with Stewart, hosted by the state Republican Party in the heart of her district. Brat dodged when asked on a June radio show whether he would work with Stewart.

In a sign of just how much Republican politics have changed since Pawlenty left the governor’s mansion and Colyer ascended to statewide office, both candidates struggled to overcome the influence of President Trump. 

Pawlenty’s opponent hammered him for his decision to rescind his endorsement of Trump weeks before the 2016 election, after the vulgar “Access Hollywood” tape came out. And despite intense lobbying from Washington Republicans and those close to Colyer, Kobach earned Trump’s endorsement, a nod that was almost certainly the decisive factor in his narrow win.

Those Republicans concerned about top-of-the-ticket conservatives as a drag on the rest of the ballot see the primary results as evidence that Trump is on voters’ minds — for better or worse.

“All in all I think the challenge for Virginia Republicans comes from the White House,” said Tucker Martin, a former communications director to ex-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). “That’s what’s responsible for the tough environment. It’s the driving factor over all others.”