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House Democrats hoping to retake the majority in 2012 are looking to an unlikely source for assistance: conservative primary challengers to sitting Republicans.
While just seven Republican incumbents have credible primary opponents so far, several more could face insurgent challengers. Some of those districts are safe GOP territory, while others represent potential Democratic pickup opportunities.
“Republicans have spent the last 300 days pushing an extreme agenda that caters to their tea party base in primaries while alienating independent voters,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Jesse Ferguson said in a statement.
Like last year’s upset Senate GOP primary in Delaware, where tea-party-backed Christine O’Donnell lost in the general and cost Republicans a pickup opportunity, political observers note another conservative wave in primaries could hurt the GOP. Members such as Rep. Kenny Marchant (Texas) have drawn primary opponents and so have freshmen such as Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (Tenn.).
Political observers predict outside groups that played major roles in Senate primaries last year, including in Delaware, Utah and Florida, could turn their focus to the House. The Club for Growth, for example, has closely tracked Members’ votes on spending bills and the debt limit and could seek to punish the conservatively impure.
“There are going to be a lot of opportunities for the club to educate the pro-growth record, or lack of one, for many freshman Members of Congress,” spokesman Barney Keller said. “There are certainly Members of Congress who have been a disappointment, and there are others who have done excellent jobs. And we’ll be working to replace the ones who have not done as well as freshmen.”
Republicans are quick to note that just a few GOP challengers are viable candidates and that others will face only token opposition. They note that scores of GOP freshmen fought through tough primaries in 2010 and are battle-tested. They also point out that some Democrats, such as Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., have primary challenges, too.
“Primaries are a healthy and expected part of the process for both parties and one that only a handful of Republicans are facing,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said in a statement.
Republican leaders have to walk a fine line between defending their incumbents and not appearing to strong-arm the electoral process. During a C-SPAN interview last month, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said, “It’s a natural thing for [a] brand-new Member of Congress to be challenged his first time out.
“We expect that internally,” Sessions said of primary challenges. “And this is a healthy thing.”