As Rep. Mark Meadows returned from Washington to his North Carolina district for Congress’ Easter recess, his recent high-profile clash with President Trump was still top of mind.
Meadows, chairman of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, stood firm last month as one of the key holdouts against health-care reform legislation endorsed by Republican leaders and the president. In the aftermath, Trump saddled Meadows and some of his conservative colleagues with the blame.
“Sometimes you take the blame,” Meadows acknowledged during a radio interview back home last week, “and that’s just part of it.”
The interviewer chimed in with a few words of support, assuring Meadows that he had acted in line with what his constituents would have wanted. Meadows agreed, suggesting he would be at peace with his approach “even if it sends me home.”
For Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus, however, their political future is no longer an abstract concern. Although these lawmakers hail from some of the safest Republican districts in the country, primary challenges could pose serious threats — particularly if the rival candidates have backing from the president and his allies.
It is too early to know whether Trump, a self-described political counter-puncher, will follow through on his threats against Meadows and others by proactively taking the fight to their districts. But, if he does, some Republicans see a ripe climate to unseat one or more of the House’s notorious rabble-rousers.
“I do think there is much more of a desire to primary these guys than ever before,” said one senior Republican strategist involved in House races. “If they are going to block the president, someone needs to go beat them.”
The Freedom Caucus has staked out a political reputation as the unyielding conservative conscience of Capitol Hill — a brand that bore fruit during President Obama’s second term, when many Republicans urged their representatives to dismantle his signature health-care law and avoid compromise at any cost.
But the calculus has shifted with a Republican now in the White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress. Purity is out; and results-oriented pragmatism, in pursuit of advancing Trump’s agenda, is en vogue.
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” Trump tweeted after health-care negotiations unraveled late last month, halting a scheduled House vote on the legislation. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
Trump subsequently called out a few Freedom Caucus lawmakers by name on Twitter, including Meadows and Reps. Jim Jordan and Raul Labrador. Separately, White House social media director Dan Scavino tweeted that Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan is “a big liability,” urging Trump’s supporters to “defeat him in [a] primary.”
Publicly, those lawmakers in the administration’s crosshairs have projected confidence as they’ve come under fire: “Competition is fine,” Jordan said earlier this month on CNN’s “State of the Union,” when asked about a potential primary challenge. “I’ve never shied away from competition. If that’s what happens, that’s what happens.”
But, privately, Freedom Caucus members and the conservative groups that back them are taking the threat seriously, scrambling to recalibrate following the president’s threats. The group has publicly appeared eager to return to the table on health-care negotiations, with Meadows touting his regular discussions with Vice President Mike Pence and House leaders. Meanwhile, the group’s members have heaped praise on the president.
Sympathetic conservative groups have meanwhile leaped to their defense on the airwaves. Last week, the conservative Club for Growth launched a $1 million ad buy to defend Freedom Caucus members and shift blame to moderates in the Tuesday Group for blocking a health-care deal. The ads targeted 10 lawmakers — including House Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican whose district abuts Meadows’; and Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio, whose district is adjacent to Jordan’s.
Meanwhile, the Koch political network has pledged a seven-figure fund to “support and thank” those lawmakers who opposed the president’s American Health Care Act.
“We will have the back of members who were consistent and were only going to support a full repeal,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. “So, if there are attacks on them, we’re going to work to make sure that their side of the story is told, that they were the ones who were actually being consistent and keeping their promises to the American people. And we’re serious about that.”
Groups like AFP and the Club for Growth are serious because they know the stakes. Indeed, there is a recent template for the so-called Republican “establishment” unseating a conservative.
Last year, Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp lost a primary fight to Roger Marshall, an OB-GYN who won key endorsements from the Kansas Farm Bureau and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
A pro-Marshall ad funded by the Chamber of Commerce labeled Huelskamp “ineffective,” noting he had been removed from the agriculture committee. Another ad by Ending Spending Action Fund, a group bankrolled by the influential Ricketts family, suggested Huelskamp had engaged in “obstructionism” and “tantrums.”
“Tim Huelskamp cares more about Washington special interests than western Kansas,” a farmer said in the ad.
On the other hand, the Club for Growth went to the mat for Huelskamp, calling Marshall a “liberal” in one ad. The Koch network also committed money to defending the incumbent, who had backed them on some of their biggest policy fights in Congress. But Marshall won comfortably.
“If it wasn’t for the billionaires in Chicago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce … it would have been a victory for Tim Huelskamp,” the ousted congressman said after his loss, adding later that “Roger Marshall could not win on his own.”
If Marshall’s template for victory is to be replicated in other districts next year against some Freedom Caucus members, a few elements would need to fall into place, Republicans say. First, donors or party activists would need to recruit an attractive challenger. Then outside groups would need to signal their support for that rival candidate.
The messaging itself is less complicated: suggesting a lawmaker has blocked the president from achieving his goals, and urging voters to elect someone new to office who will get things done.
“If you vote no on almost everything, you’re always going to be able to find something. Wait until we tell people you voted against mammograms,” the Republican strategist said. “If you put enough money behind something, you can convince voters it’s a problem.”
For its part, Trump’s nascent political network has not yet started to engage against any Republican incumbents. One sympathetic group, America First Policies, this week began running ads thanking some lawmakers who supported the health-care deal pushed by the White House. Making America Great, a group supported by top Trump donors the Mercer family, has so far kept its focus on highlighting Trump’s accomplishments and boosting his administration’s policy priorities.
It’s also early, and Freedom Caucus members might yet win back the president’s favor by working with him — a strategy that would likely deflate any primary efforts.
With the Freedom Caucus having restarted discussions on health care, Meadows predicted they would have something to show for it within Trump’s first 100 days — a deadline that is fast approaching. But Meadows also acknowledged the heat he is feeling from the president to reach a deal.
Trump “is a dealmaker, and so he’s going to apply pressure where he can. And I understand that,” Meadows told his local radio station. “That pressure … is the way he’s always done business.”