Senate

With lack of wins, GOP faces ’18 primary woes

Greg Nash

Republican leaders are facing a conservative backlash if their latest effort to repeal parts of ObamaCare this week fails — or even if it passes.

GOP base voters are frustrated with the lack of accomplishments, and their frustration is on full display in the Alabama Republican primary runoff, where former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has a substantial lead in the polls over incumbent Sen. Luther Strange.

{mosads}Conservative activists say the latest GOP health-care bill sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) falls short of the promise to repeal ObamaCare “root and branch,” but it’s better than nothing.

If that fails this week, as expected, Republican primary voters will have even less confidence in the GOP establishment — a rift that could spell trouble for incumbents in next year’s primaries.

“The backlash for the members of Congress more than the president could be significant if they truly can’t get their ducks in a row and get repeal accomplished,” said Chip Roy, former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), warning of danger for Republicans up for reelection next year.

“They would be in a much stronger position if they had done what they said what they were going to do and should have done, which was repeal it at a date certain and then have a series of discussions and debate about how to reform health care,” he said.

“We’re now staring at a much messier 2018 if Republicans continue to fail to get the job done,” he said.

Republican strategists and conservative activists predict that combined with Moore’s projected victory over Strange, an ObamaCare defeat will embolden conservative challengers to take on Senate and House GOP incumbents.

Conservatives weren’t satisfied with the Graham-Cassidy bill in the first place.

“Republican voters want ObamaCare repealed, period. People I’m talking to only see Graham-Cassidy as a step toward repeal and not full repeal, which is what they expected,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots.

The bill would dismantle ObamaCare’s subsidy programs and Medicaid expansion and convert its funding into block grants to the states, but critics argue that it would still keep some insurance regulations and taxes in place, not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending.

“If the Republicans don’t give relief to the voters whose insurance premiums and deductibles have gone up and up over the last several years, I think the consequences will be dire,” Martin said. “Voters will begin to wonder whether it matters whether Republicans have a majority or not.”

The measure appeared destined for defeat on Monday after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced his opposition last week and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said over the weekend that he, too, is a likely no. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) became the third Republican to announce her opposition on Monday night. 

Meanwhile, Strange is running behind in Alabama — encouraging news for other Republicans looking to take on incumbents. A poll released Monday by Cygnal, an Alabama-based data firm, and L2, another data firm, showed Moore with an 11-point lead over Strange, even though the Senate Leadership Fund, a group connected to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has spent more than $10 million to support the incumbent.

“I’m already getting calls from people who are going to primary [a] sitting Republicans,” said Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, who has fielded calls from prospective challengers to Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R) and Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock (R).

Two of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), have already drawn challengers.

Danny Tarkanian, the son of legendary University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, is taking on Heller, while Kelli Ward, who tried to unseat McCain last year, is running against Flake.

“There’s a lot of reasons these guys are going to get primaried, but a lot of them are going to get pilloried for ObamaCare. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the base is not happy. They’ve been promised for seven years now, ‘Once we’re in power, we’re going to repeal ObamaCare,’ ” Phillips said.

McConnell vowed after the 2010 and 2012 elections, where conservative candidates beat out establishment-backed favorites in primaries but then lost in general-election contests, that he would crack down on Tea Party insurgents.

“I think we are going to crush them everywhere,” McConnell told The New York Times in March 2014. 

GOP leaders were able to do that thanks in part to big-spending allies such as the Senate Leadership Fund, which spent $114 million in the 2016 election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

But McConnell also vowed at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013 that Republicans would repeal ObamaCare “root and branch” if they regained full power in Washington.

“On issue after issue, Senate Republicans are making excuses rather than delivering,” said Ken Cuccinnelli, head of the Senate Conservatives Fund. “We could definitely see a string of new primary challengers emerge in the coming months and Senate Republicans will only have themselves to blame for it.” 

Party strategists say the failure of ObamaCare repeal-and-replace legislation in the Senate in July is directly responsible for Moore’s strong showing in the Alabama primary.

“There’s no question. There’s one issue that stands out above all the rest. The failure of ObamaCare repeal in July lit the fuse for what we’re seeing in September in Alabama,” said a GOP strategist with experience in high-profile Senate and House races.

“To the extent that Republicans in Congress cannot generate accomplishments that are in line with the president’s agenda, you’re going to continue to see this sort of reaction from Republican primary voters,” the strategist added. “If they repealed ObamaCare in July, the outcome in Alabama would have probably been completely different.”

Tags Bill Cassidy Bob Corker Dean Heller Jeff Flake John McCain Lindsey Graham Luther Strange Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Susan Collins Ted Cruz

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