In today’s hyperpartisan political climate, members of Congress risk losing support when they deviate from their party’s position on important votes. In fact, over the past year, we’ve already seen this play out twice for Republicans in the House of Representatives.
First, 10 House Republicans infuriated their colleagues and the party’s base by voting to impeach outgoing President Trump after his incitement of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Then in early November, 13 House Republicans voted for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill put forward by Democrats. They have faced fiery denunciations from within the GOP for backing it, with many Republicans accusing the representatives of helping President Biden and Democrats move their agenda forward.
The repercussions for crossing party lines have been swift. In the case of the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment, all attracted at least one intraparty challenger — of these challengers, Trump has endorsed five — and two even called it quits, knowing they’d struggle to win reelection. The fallout for the 13 Republicans who backed the infrastructure bill hasn’t been as widespread, but already two of the nine who voted for the infrastructure bill alone have attracted notable primary opponents. And it’s possible that more primary opposition could emerge in the coming weeks, as many on the right have called for the ouster of the pro-infrastructure House Republicans, including Trump himself.
At this point, though, it’s mostly the four Republicans who also voted to impeach Trump who face serious primary challenges. To be sure, five Republicans who voted for just the infrastructure bill do face a primary challenger, but only two of them are serious by our count.
|Representative||Current District||Voted to impeach Trump||Primary opponent||Trump- endorsed primary opp.|
|Jeff Van Drew||NJ-02||✓|
Much of the opposition to the four who backed impeachment long predated the infrastructure vote, too. The principal primary challengers to Reps. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois announced their campaigns in February 2021, and Gonzalez and Kinzinger announced their retirements in mid-September and late October, respectively — before the infrastructure vote. Meanwhile, Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and John Katko of New York are still seeking reelection, but their primary challengers announced in the spring and summer.
Of the nine Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill but not impeachment, most have avoided high-profile intraparty challengers. One of them — New York Rep. Tom Reed — actually decided to retire earlier this year after allegations of sexual misconduct, and of the remaining eight, only two have more than nominal primary opposition at this point.
But of that pair, West Virginia Rep. David McKinley is probably the most endangered because he now faces a primary battle against fellow GOP Rep. Alex Mooney.1 West Virginia lost a congressional district in the once-in-a-decade redistricting process, which means McKinley and Mooney will now face off against each other in a district that merges most of their previous districts, and troublingly for McKinley in a state that voted for Trump by 39 percentage points, Mooney has earned Trump’s backing.
It’s likely the infrastructure vote played a part in the timing of Trump’s endorsement, too. The former president announced he’d back Mooney just two days after he released a statement encouraging “America First Republican Patriots” to run against the Republicans who voted for the infrastructure deal. McKinley’s vote may have been the final straw for the former president, who praised Mooney’s vote against the infrastructure bill in his endorsement.
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It’s not yet clear how much Alaska Rep. Don Young’s infrastructure vote will be a problem for him as his most notable challenger launched his campaign before the infrastructure vote, but Young, the House’s longest-serving current member, might finally have a serious challenger in Nick Begich III.
Begich is the grandson of the man Young replaced in 1973, Democratic Rep. Nick Begich, who disappeared in a plane while campaigning just before the 1972 election. Unlike his grandfather and much of his family, however, the younger Begich is a Republican. So far, he’s centered his campaign against the 88-year-old Young around a message of generational change.
Notably, too, Begich is a fellow at the Club for Growth Foundation. That might matter because the limited-government-oriented Club for Growth has never rated Young highly and has previously endorsed at least one of his past primary challengers. The Club’s campaign arm often spends large sums on behalf of its endorsed candidates, too, although it has not yet offered a 2022 Alaska endorsement. But even if the Club for Growth doesn’t endorse Begich, Alaska’s new nonpartisan top-four primary means Begich could still advance, as his challenge won’t happen in the confines of a traditional party primary. Instead, they’ll be competing in a primary where candidates from all parties are running together on the same ballot, so both Young and Begich could advance to the general election if they finish among the top-four vote-getters.
As for the other six House Republicans who backed only the infrastructure bill and are set to run again in 2022, it’s possible that they may not attract serious primary opposition. After all, voting for infrastructure funding is not as politically risky as voting to impeach a president from one’s own party. Plus, all 13 Republicans who backed the infrastructure bill rank as fairly moderate, so a vote for infrastructure wasn’t exactly a departure from their past voting behavior, especially as most of them represent districts in or around major metropolitan areas that need infrastructure dollars.
These Republicans’ infrastructure votes might rankle some Republicans, but that may be a feature, not a bug, because many of these members also represent (potentially) competitive turf where winning over swing voters helps ensure victory. As Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon told Axios, “You vote one way, maybe it hurts in the primary. You vote the other way … in my district, it’d hurt me in the general.”
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Additionally, Reps. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Nicole Malliotakis of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania might avoid a major primary challenge because Trump hasn’t targeted them in the same way as other pro-infrastructure House Republicans. In his Nov. 13 statement listing off House Republicans he felt should be taken down, Trump notably left off their names. Trump also recently said that, despite her vote, he still supports Malliotakis, whose district includes Staten Island, where Trump still holds a strong appeal. And Van Drew famously switched parties in December 2019 after opposing Trump’s impeachment, which may well have been why Trump didn’t mention him.
On the other hand, the fury directed at these relatively moderate, pro-infrastructure Republicans might still yield a few serious, Trump-minded challenges from the right. After all, political scientists have observed an increase in ideologically based primary challenges in recent years. To be clear, those efforts have mostly been unsuccessful — few House incumbents lose renomination — but the infrastructure vote could provide an impetus for a primary opponent. It’s also been less than a month since the infrastructure vote, so prospective candidates looking to answer the call for primary challengers may still be ramping up their campaigns. The candidate filing deadline hasn’t passed in a single state where a Republican backed the infrastructure bill; most aren’t until March 2022 at the earliest. Moreover, states like New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have yet to finish redistricting, so there might still be big changes in store for these incumbents that make them more vulnerable in a primary.
Right now, though, it doesn’t appear that the House Republicans who voted for infrastructure but not impeachment will face the same degree of primary opposition as those who voted to impeach Trump. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t see the emergence of a few more serious primary challengers who cite the infrastructure vote as a key motivation for getting into a race. We’ll be watching to see if the infrastructure vote joins impeachment as a major factor in determining which incumbents face the gloomiest primary prospects in 2022.