WASHINGTON—Badly outspent and targeted by a withering Chamber of Commerce television ad, Woody White lost the Republican primary for an open House seat from North Carolina last year. Yet with anti-establishment Republicans riding high in the presidential race and Congress these days, the tea party-backed lawyer senses a better environment should he force a 2016 rematch with his GOP rival.
“The message or desire on the part of the electorate to revolt, if you will, from the establishment is so palpable” that it may overcome fundraising advantages his opponent, freshman Rep. David Rouzer, is likely to have, White says.
White and hard-core conservatives around the country say voter anger could help them oust Republican House members considered too unwilling to challenge President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. They cite a movement energized by the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, who quit partly to prevent GOP lawmakers from having to vote to keep him in his post—a vote that itself could have prompted primary challenges from irate conservatives.
They also cite the decision by Boehner’s chosen successor, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, against seeking that post and the early appeal of outsider GOP presidential hopefuls Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.
“The buzz in the network is the blood is in the water,” said Mark Meckler, president of Citizens for Self-Governance, a conservative group. “And it’s time to take advantage of the momentum.”
Top Republicans and their business allies say there’s a big gap between planning a challenge and mounting a serious one, citing most incumbents’ huge fundraising advantages. They also question if conservative unrest will trickle down to House races.
But they’re hedging their bets, preparing to spend money if necessary to protect GOP pragmatists, both incumbents and those seeking open seats, from primary challenges.
“The Chamber works to elect pro-business candidates who have the courage to govern when they get to Washington,” said Blair Holmes, spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which backed 14 GOP candidates in House and Senate primaries last year. Holmes declined to use a figure for 2016 but said, “We will be very engaged.”
No one thinks the brewing battle will cost the GOP its House majority. But it could change the proportion of hard-right conservatives, who now comprise a few dozen of the chamber’s 247 Republicans.
Defiant conservatives like those in the House Freedom Caucus say the party will thrive if it stands fast against Obama on health care, federal spending and other priorities, even if it means veto battles that might cause a government shutdown or federal default. Party leaders and business groups say it makes little sense to force such confrontations that could alienate voters and jar the economy—especially when Republicans lack the votes to override Obama vetoes.
“Some people think in order to achieve here, you have to be explosive and you have to throw everything over,” said Robert Cresanti, president of the International Franchise Association. He said candidates opposing bipartisan compromise “are people who we’re not interested in supporting.”
With most states’ filing deadlines for House primary candidates months away, it’s too early to know how many incumbent Republicans will face real challenges. Such contests seem likeliest in deeply red districts in the South and rural areas, where even veteran conservative lawmakers must peer over their right shoulders for challengers.
“My view is just to be prepared,” said Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, a conservative favorite since shouting “You lie” as Obama addressed Congress in 2009. “I’ll campaign full bore, I’ll be at the largest precincts shaking hands until they close the doors” in his primary next June.
Conservative groups like FreedomWorks and Club for Growth say they’re poised to oppose Republicans they consider too moderate. They say time and grass-roots enthusiasm are on their side and cite last year’s unexpected primary upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia by Dave Brat, a political neophyte whom Cantor vastly outspent.
“Give us a couple of election cycles,” said FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon. “We’re showing that there’s an alternative to go-along, get-along politics, and it threatens a lot of people.”
Yet thanks to backing by the Chamber and others, GOP pragmatists defeated challengers in 2014 primaries in Kentucky, Mississippi and elsewhere.
Indeed, of 208 House Republicans seeking re-election in 2014, just over a dozen experienced tight primary battles and just four lost. Even in the 2010 tea party deluge that gave Republicans a House majority, just two GOP House incumbents lost primaries.
“Sometimes, it’s easy to mistake loud noise for big numbers,” said Emily Davis, spokeswoman for the American Action Network, a political group allied with House GOP leaders.
In March, that organization infuriated House conservatives by using ads and phone calls to pressure those opposing a GOP leadership effort to end a standoff with Obama over funding the Homeland Security Department. It spent $240,000 in 2014 to defeat two conservatives seeking GOP nominations for open House seats, including White in North Carolina.
White says the Chamber of Commerce did the real damage by spending $300,000 against him, including a TV commercial tarring him as a trial lawyer whose lawsuits “destroy jobs.”
“It made a difference,” said White. “I lost.”