The Common Threads Emerging Among GOP Primary Insurgents

Republican challengers in intra-party contests embrace Trump, blast lack of legislative progress

The sluggish pace of legislative progress on President Donald Trump’s agenda has handed GOP insurgents in congressional contests a potent political weapon to wield against incumbent lawmakers.

Nevada businessman Danny Tarkanian announced Tuesday on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” that he was launching a 2018 Republican primary challenge against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Heller, the only Republican senator up for re-election next year in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016, came under intense fire from both Republicans and Democrats during the past several weeks for vacillating on repealing and replacing Obamacare.

Heller did vote for the so-called “skinny repeal” bill that was nevertheless sunk by other Senate GOP moderates, but Tarkanian noted Heller voted against the so-called “clean repeal” bill that he backed in 2015 when it had no chance of becoming law.

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“We’re never going to make America great again unless we have senators in office that fully support President Trump and his America First agenda,” Tarkanian said on “Fox & Friends.” “That’s what’s frustrated the people of Nevada so much. Dean Heller has broken one promise after another to the people of Nevada. He promised to repeal Obamacare, and in fact, he voted for that two years ago. But when he had the chance to actually get it repealed, he voted against it.”

Tarkanian made clear he would peg his appeal to being a fighter for the Trump agenda.

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“Even after President Trump has been elected, Dean Heller has obstructed his agenda. That grandstand press conference he had derailed any momentum to get the health care bill repealed,” he said. “We need people who are going to support the America First agenda. And I will be that person.”

“Dean Heller wasn’t just one of the first Never-Trumpers in Nevada. He was one of the most influential. He actually helped Hillary Clinton win the state of Nevada,” the businessman added. “I fully supported President Trump to the end of the campaign.”

Maintaining that “there is no doubt” that Heller “has lost the support of the base of the Republican Party,” Tarkanian said that the Nevada voters deserve a senator who will fall in line with the president’s legislative agenda and listen to the voices of the voters.

Trump has needled Heller publicly about his opposition to various forms of the GOP Senate’s health care reform legislation.

During a GOP Senate press conference on health care held at the White House on July 19, the president pointed at Heller, who sat next to him, saying, “This was the one we were worried about. You weren’t there. But you’re gonna be. You’re gonna be. Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he? And I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they’re gonna appreciate what you hopefully will do.”

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Tarkanian added that the people deserve a senator “who will keep his word and vote in Washington D.C. the same way he campaigns here in Nevada.”

“I am a conservative Republican who supports the policies of President Trump to repeal Obamacare and end illegal immigration,” he said. “I will continue to support President Trump’s policies that have led to a 20 percent increase in the stock market in just six months. I will join Senator [Mike] Lee, Senator [Ted] Cruz, and Senator [Rand] Paul fighting for real reforms against the liberals in our party.”

Tarkanian’s announcement came amid growing discontent among GOP voters with Republican senators such as Jeff Flake (Ariz.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Thom Tillis (N.C.) for publicly undermining and criticizing Trump, his agenda, and his place in the Republican Party.

“Republican senators against Trump are playing a game of chicken with their constituents. The advantages of incumbency are formidable, but they don’t make senators invincible — particularly on the Republican side,” Eddie Zipperer, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Military College, told LifeZette in an email.

“However, they’re making a huge mistake distancing themselves from Trump. Among Republicans, who will be the primary electorate, he is quite popular,” he added. “They’re rolling the dice on Trump’s approval rating, which seems low but is deceptive. Trump’s approval in red areas remains pretty high.”

Although Trump’s approval ratings have dipped dangerously into the 30s for the past couple of weeks, congressional Republicans Democrats alike haven’t fared much better — or better at all, in some key cases. A recent Quinnipiac University poll measuring congressional approval ratings found that Tillis enjoyed a meager 29 percent approval rating, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who has failed repeatedly to corral 50 out of 52 GOP senators to support health care reform legislation — had a mere 17 percent approval rating.

As for Heller, his approval numbers took a hit following the Senate’s health care reform debacle. A poll released last week by the Democratic-aligned firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that just 22 percent of Nevada voters approve of Heller. The firm’s poll from the previous week found that only 29 percent of voters approved of Heller’s job performance.

“The idea is that they’ll make it to the general election and actual conservative voters will be trapped,” Zipperer said. “They’ll have no choice but to vote for a Flake or Heller who isn’t conservative but is marginally more conservative than the opponent.”

A mid-July poll from Morning Consult found that the vehemently anti-Trump Flake was the third least-popular senator in Congress, with 37 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval from American voters. An August poll from PPP found that only 18 percent of Arizona voters approve of Flake’s Senate performance, while 62 percent disapprove.

Flake repeatedly came out against Trump all throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and he refused to attend the Republican National Convention last year, telling reporters that he had to mow his lawn instead of showing up to support his party’s nominee. Flake told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” in June 2016 that he hoped other Republican members of Congress would follow his lead and staunchly oppose Trump, saying, “I hope that a number of us at least will withhold endorsement.”

In recent weeks, Flake has taken to bashing Trump on television, penning critical op-eds and pushing his new book lambasting the president and how he believes Trump has destroyed the Republican Party.

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Flake’s open hostility to the president from his own party and support for liberal immigration measures has earned him opposition from GOP primary challengers, most notably vocal pro-Trump former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, who penned an op-ed last week titled “Jeff Flake is trying to have it both ways.”

“Jeff Flake’s book, ‘Conscience of a Conservative,’ is the latest example of the blind Trump hatred emanating from a small group of self-righteous ‘Republicans’ who join the radical Left in an effort to delegitimize the president,” she wrote. “Flake is trying to have it both ways. He writes a book attacking Trump, while sending out fundraising pitches to wealthy donors claiming to stand with the president: pure swamp.”

“Flake and his fellow elitists in Washington, D.C., think that President Trump is the problem. But Republican voters knew exactly what they were doing and, more specifically, who they were rejecting when they overwhelmingly supported candidate Trump over more than a dozen ‘traditional’ GOP candidates,” Ward added.

A July report from Politico alleged the White House has been meeting covertly with current and potential GOP challengers to Flake.

“The mutual dislike runs deep,” Constantin Querard, the Republican strategist who oversaw Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign in Arizona, told Politico in mid-July. “That both complicates [Flake’s] path to re-election by putting him at odds with much of the Arizona GOP, and it makes it very likely that if he gets a primary challenger that the Trump team likes, that challenger will be funded and supported in a way that makes beating Flake the most likely outcome.”

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel said Monday on “The Laura Ingraham Show” that the overwhelmingly number-one response she hears from the GOP base is a call for Congress “to support this president.”

“And so what I say to people as I travel the country is, ‘We were sent President Trump, and voters gave us a Senate and a House so President Trump could accomplish his agenda.’ And they want to see Congress working with this president,” McDaniel said. “If we can maintain majorities, we will help the president accomplish his agenda. And it may take the 2018 elections to get the type of Congress in place that will accomplish the president’s agenda.”

(photo credit, homepage and article images: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

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