Battle for House Control Shaped by Bitter Primary Contests

President Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party will be tested in a handful of House primary contests Tuesday shadowed by the once-in-a-century pandemic and the civil unrest that have sharpened political divisions across the U.S.

Two primaries on Tuesday illustrate how intra-party fights are coloring the general election outlook for both the GOP and Democrats.

Nine-term Iowa Republican Steve King, a controversial conservative and Trump loyalist who narrowly won re-election in 2018, faces four challengers and opposition from a wide swath of GOP power brokers. The district is the most Republican in Iowa, but if King survives the primary Democrats could have a shot at taking it.

In New Mexico, first-term Democratic Representative Xochitl Torres Small’s race is considered a toss-up. But the Republican race to challenge her in November has been a bitter campaign marked by personal attacks and questions about loyalty to Trump that could leave Torres Small a clearer shot at re-election.

Despite the primary intrigue, Democrats remain solid favorites to hold on to their 17-seat House majority, and may have chances to add to it. But the outcomes will give a window on how both parties approach the November campaigns and policies they’ll pursue in 2021.

Voters in seven states are casting ballots on in House Primaries Tuesday amid a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 103,000 people in the U.S. and triggered the harshest downturn for American workers in history. Adding to the turmoil are mass protests and violence in the aftermath of a black man’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

Multiple political analysts said that it’s too soon to tell whether the spasm of civil unrest will affect voters in November. The coronavirus pandemic and the economic dislocation that followed have mostly just hardened existing views, mainly because the biggest influence on the November election remains Trump.

“There’s the potential that the current state of unrest hinders people’s ability to vote, but I’m not convinced it will change very many minds,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the non-partisan newsletter Inside Elections. “Up to this point, there isn’t really anything that has changed opinions about the president.”

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said the demonstrations and looting that consumed cities across the country still are secondary to health concerns and the state of the economy for most people.

“I do think we are going to hear a lot about that down the road, and it will be an issue that will ripen over the horizon in November,” Miringoff added.

At this point, Democrats have better chances of adding to their House majority than Republicans have of narrowing it. Of the 27 Republicans retiring or running for other office, up to nine of those seats are at risk of falling to the Democrats, according to David Wasserman, the Cook Political Report’s House editor. Only one of the nine seats being left open by Democrats is considered at risk.

Personal Attacks

One of the nastiest GOP primary races is the three-way contest in New Mexico for the nomination to challenge Torres Small.

The primary pits oil executive Claire Chase against former state lawmaker Yvette Herrell and Las Cruces businessman Chris Mathys. Chase and Herrell — who won the GOP nomination in 2018 only to narrowly lose to Torres Small — have exchanged accusations of disloyalty to Trump. Chase has been criticized for her past negative social media posts about Trump, and Herrell for actions or statements critical of the Trump or the White House.

Virginia Battle

Republicans also are bitterly divided in a south-central Virginia district represented by freshman Representative Denver Riggleman. He’s accused party leaders of rigging the race in favor of GOP challenger Bob Good, who was recruited to run by social conservatives after Riggleman officiated a same-sex marriage.

Riggleman has tied himself closely to Trump, and Donald Trump Jr. has recorded a campaign call on his behalf. Despite that, local party officials rebuffed Riggleman’s objections and plan to hold a June 13 party convention to select the GOP nominee at a church near Good’s home.

Democrats will choose their nominee in a June 23 primary, but the seat is likely to stay in GOP hands.

Democratic fights include a progressive challenge to House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel of New York, a 16-term congressman in a seat that won’t change party hands this fall, regardless of the June 23 primary winner. In 2018, another high-ranking House Democrat was upset in a similarly safe nearby Democratic district by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, vaulting her to political superstar status.

Other competitive primaries are ahead in New York state, as well as in Indiana, Georgia, New Jersey and Montana.

Seeking a congressional comeback in Texas’s July 14 party runoffs is Pete Sessions, the former chairman of the House Rules Committee chairman and the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, who moved to a Waco-area open district after losing his Dallas-area seat in 2018.

Party Switch

A Kennedy family member, Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy, is running in a July 7 New Jersey Democratic primary for the nomination to take on party-switcher Jeff Van Drew. He won the Republican-leaning seat as a Democrat in 2018, but joined the GOP in December.

Some primary results may reflect shifts in parties’ agendas and policy positions. Primary voters in recent years have pulled Democrats left and Republicans right. But taking more polarizing stances can haunt candidates in the general election.

Paul Brace, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, said that for some Republicans, the prospect of being accused of disloyalty to Trump “has driven incumbent GOP politicians to be intensely loyal or silent in the face of Trump misadventures.”

On the flip side, Brace said some Democratic incumbents fear challenges from the party’s progressive wing, “driving some to be more liberal to guard their flanks.”

Republicans have been optimistic about their prospects against the 30 House Democrats representing districts Trump won in 2016. They point to a May 12 special election in California, when Republican former fighter pilot Mike Garcia won the contest to replace former Democratic Representative Katie Hill, who had resigned.

Generic Ballot

But polls show that optimism may be misplaced. The average of generic congressional ballot polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight has Democrats with a comfortable lead of about 8% — about the same cushion Democrats had when they picked up 40 seats to take the majority in 2018.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “will still hold the field marshal’s baton on the 4th of November,” the day after the election, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

But Baker, too, underscored there are other aims in primaries — and that King’s primary Tuesday provides a clear case study.

Baker said many Republicans in Iowa’s 4th congressional district are “hopeful that they can rid themselves of Steve King,” whose controversial comments on race and immigration led House Republican leaders to strip him of his committee assignments.

Randy Feenstra is the leading challenging to King in Tuesday’s primary, and he’s backed by state Senator Annette Sweeney, who supported King in the past but says he is no longer an effective voice for his district.

“What was he getting done in D.C.?” she said in an interview.

‘Perfect Environment’

Iowa Republicans are looking to hold the district and maybe even reclaim at least one of two other seats they lost in 2018, according to David Kochel, a longtime Republican operative who runs a pro-Feenstra political action committee.

“We can’t afford to throw this seat away,” said Kochel, adding that Republicans “don’t want to needlessly risk this seat going to the Democrats.”

Rutgers political scientist Baker said a King primary win could even spell “big trouble” for Iowa GOP Senator Joni Ernst, who is running for re-election in November, because Democrats will “hang that albatross around her neck.”

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s been a significant increase in requests for absentee and mail-in ballots, said Craig Robinson, a GOP consultant who runs a website called the Iowa Republican. He called it “the perfect environment to upset the incumbent.”

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