After angering Trump, is Thomas Massie really in trouble?

Kentucky Republican has a record of breaking with his party

Kentucky GOP Rep. Thomas Massie drew Trump's ire last week for pushing for a recorded vote on an economic stimulus bill (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Kentucky GOP Rep. Thomas Massie drew Trump's ire last week for pushing for a recorded vote on an economic stimulus bill (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 2, 2020 at 9:39am, Updated at 4:12pm

President Donald Trump's call to throw Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie out of the Republican Party has raised new questions about whether GOP voters in Massie's district will listen and deny him the party's nomination for another term.

Attorney Todd McMurtry is hoping they do, and he wasted no time reminding voters that Trump angered the president. McMurtry, who is challenging Massie in a primary, released a 30-second television ad Thursday highlighting Trump's tweets aimed at Massie.

But Massie doesn't see the new spotlight on his race as a problem.

Massie’s campaign said more than $200,000 in contributions have come in since he stood on the House floor Friday and called for a recorded vote on a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, which was crafted in response to the new coronavirus pandemic. That's more than Massie raised throughout all of 2019.

Massie's push for a recorded vote was denied, but only after leaders in both parties gathered more than 200 lawmakers in the House chamber to establish a quorum, raising concerns about whether lawmakers traveling to D.C. were putting themselves in danger. New York GOP Rep. Peter T. King tweeted that Massie would have blood on his hands if anyone becomes infected with the virus.

"More than one member wished me luck with my primary," Massie said in a Tuesday phone interview, implying their comments were sarcastic. "You can read what you want into that."

Massie’s detractors, and even some of his supporters, say he could be facing his most competitive race since he was first elected in 2012.

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A new spotlight

The attention on Massie has also cast a spotlight on McMurtry, who represented the Covington Catholic student who settled a defamation lawsuit against CNN over its coverage of an encounter between a student and a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial in 2019.

The same day that Massie made his unsuccessful stand against the coronavirus bill, the political action committee of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group reportedly backed by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, announced it would endorse McMurtry and raise money for him.

"A lot of people, including President Trump, are rightfully upset that Thomas Massie would try to block coronavirus aid from reaching the American people, and they are responding to that outrage by endorsing, volunteering, and contributing," McMurtry's campaign manager, Jake Monssen, said in a statement.

Monssen would not say how much the campaign has raised in recent days. McMurty launched his campaign after the start of the year, so his first fundraising disclosure, covering the three months ending Tuesday, is due April 15.

McMurtry's campaign launched a "Massie Mistakes" website in February, highlighting a different "mistake" each day. The initial plan was to highlight 100 before the May 19 primary, which has now been postponed to June 23 amid the pandemic. On Wednesday, McMurtry added Massie defending his push for a recorded vote to the list, and pledged to keep highlighting mistakes for the next 83 days.

"First, [Massie] brags to the press about how much money he raised for his campaign off this stunt, and now he insists it was done purely out of principle," McMurtry said in a statement. "Massie is a failure and an embarrassment."

Massie, meanwhile, has been making the rounds on conservative media to make his case.

He said on Fox News Friday that lawmakers' criticism of his actions demonstrated their "arrogance," noting that truck drivers, grocery workers, and delivery workers are still going to work.

"They're telling people that the congressmen need to stay home, but everybody else needs to work for them," Massie said.

Paul sticking with him

Massie's allies have stuck by him. Asked if Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul was still supporting Massie, Paul's chief strategist, Doug Stafford, responded with one word: "Absolutely."

Massie's critics say they expect voters will now look more closely at his record. He has a reputation for often voting against measures his Republican colleagues overwhelmingly support, particularly on spending bills.

"It’s forcing people to take a look at what he’s about” said GOP state Rep. Kim Moser, who was last summer recruited to challenge Massie, but opted not to run. She declined to say who encouraged her to run.

Moser said she is leaning towards supporting McMurtry and disagrees with Massie's "consistent 'no' votes."

Massie and his backers in the tea party movement say those repeated stances are why voters support him.

"What people desperately want is somebody who’s consistent," Massie said. "I think my constituents would probably have been disappointed if I hadn’t opposed this bill.”

The question for McMurtry is whether voters believe Massie went too far this time.

McMurtry has the added challenge of waging a virtual campaign when, under normal circumstances, incumbents are difficult to beat because of their high name recognition and sizable war chests.

Getting a message out to the 4th District, which includes four different media markets, is an expensive endeavor. McMurtry does have some more time to leverage Trump's comments since the primaries were postponed. But Massie still thinks he has an edge.

"I've introduced myself to people in person," Massie said. "I've had seven or eight years to do it. He's got eight weeks. And he's got to somehow do it on TV."

Trump factor

It remains to be seen whether Trump slamming Massie as a "third rate grandstander" will turn GOP primary voters against him.

 "The president’s comments the other day were not helpful," said Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for the United Kentucky Tea Party. "Unfortunately President Trump is not particularly a conservative or a constitutionalist. He likes the Constitution until it gets in his way. Thomas Massie was absolutely correct in doing what he did."

Hofstra didn't think Trump's tweets would be a problem for Massie, but loyalty to Trump has been a major factor in GOP primaries. The last sitting House Republican to lose in a primary was South Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Sanford, a frequent Trump critic.

Massie believes that Trump's supporters are on his side when it comes to the stimulus bill.

"I really do think that, you know, people will stick with Trump in spite of this bill," Massie said. "But they're not voting for Trump because of this bill ... They're seeing a lot of spending. They're seeing that Nancy Pelosi got some of her little earmarks in there. And they're wondering why the President himself supports it."

It's not clear whether Trump will weigh in again on Massie or his primary. Trump and McMurtry's campaign declined to comment on whether they had been in touch. But, potentially to Massie's benefit, Trump's new chief of staff is former North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Meadows, someone Massie considers one of his best friends.

Trump is popular in Massie's district and he won it by 36 points in 2016. Massie has not criticized Trump personally, and some in Kentucky questioned whether Trump's tweets would turn GOP voters against Massie.

‘Split loyalties’

Tres Watson, a Kentucky Republican consultant, said GOP voters in the 4th District tend to be libertarian and the area was center of the tea party movement in in the state.

"It’s not that the president doesn’t have sway with them," Watson said. "It’s just that they have split loyalties ... People are loyal to the president but they’re also loyal to Congressman Massie.”

But Massie and his team have shown they are aware of Trump's power in GOP primaries.

In late January, his campaign ran a 30-second television ad in Florida while Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago club for the Super Bowl, highlighting McMurtry's criticism of Trump on social media posts. McMurtry called Trump “the epitome of a weak male” and wrote that  “Hillary is right, he is temperamentally unqualified to be president.” The ad also aired in Massie's district in February.

"We'll triple down on that ad," Massie said.

Monssesn, McMurtry's campaign manager, responded to Massie's ad in Janurary by pointing to Massie's voting record.

“It would be great if Thomas Massie’s problem was limited to old Facebook posts. It’s not. His problem is his anti-Trump voting record in the House,” he told Politico at the time.

Massie is among a group of Republicans who have often broken with the president. His support for Trump's priorities has ranged from 43 percent in 2018 to 81 percent last year, according to CQ Vote Watch. The average House Republican backed Trump priorities 93 percent of the time.

Dead in the water?

Massie believes the ad dealt a fatal blow to his opponent's campaign, but he acknowledged McMurtry would use Trump's recent criticism against him. He just doesn't think it will work.

"Obviously my opponent and his dead- in-the-water campaign are going to try to breathe life into the campaign," Massie said. "You just can’t bring a campaign back to life.” 

McMurtry's supporters aren't convinced. Larry Mazzuckelli, who volunteered for Trump's primary campaign in 2016 as the 4th District organizer, is backing McMurtry. He isn't bothered by McMurtry's past comments and noted plenty of Republicans have changed their opinions about Trump.

"What did [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsey Graham say about the president? What did [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio say about the president? … Look where they are today,” said Mazzuckelli. 

Mazzuckelli did raise concerns that voters might not be as aware of the primary race amid the unfolding public health crisis.

"I don’t think people are really prepared to think about a primary," Mazzuckelli said. "But I think once they hear what [Massie] did ... and how angry the president is, that might have an impact.”