House GOP embroiled in escalating primary feuds with majority on the line

For more on House Republican primary infighting, watch “Inside Politics with Manu Raju” on Sunday at 8 a.m. ET and 11 a.m. ET.

GOP Rep. Don Bacon has had it with the far-right of his conference.

They’ve thrown out one House speaker and are trying to dump another one, all while scuttling their leadership’s agenda and now actively campaigning against incumbent Republicans — including himself.

After House Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good of Virginia announced his support for Bacon’s GOP rival ahead of his May 14 primary, the Nebraska Republican now plans to take matters into his own hands.

“I am supporting Bob Good’s opponent now … because Bob Good came out and endorsed my opponent,” Bacon, who says he has never endorsed against a colleague until now, told CNN. “So we’re going to go in with everything we’ve got. That’s how it works.”

It has long been a breach of protocol on Capitol Hill to campaign against sitting members of the same party. But the 118th Congress has seen the House GOP descend into a seemingly endless series of intraparty wars, with members hurling personal insults at each other, pointedly blaming each other for their failures to enact a conservative agenda and now actively stumping to defeat their own Republican colleagues in races that will carry major consequences for the direction of the party.

In Texas, Rep. Tony Gonzales is trying to fend off a challenger backed by GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and by Good — whom the incumbent Republican recently derided as “scumbags” — ahead of his May 28 runoff. In South Carolina, members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus are rallying around conservative state Rep. Adam Morgan, who is trying to knock off Rep. William Timmons in the June 11 primary. In Virginia, center-right Republicans and the ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy are helping Republican challenger John McGuire ahead of the June 18 primary against Good, one of eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy last fall.

Other intraparty feuds are also taking shape — in defiance of House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has told his colleagues to “knock it off” and stop campaigning against each other.

Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington state, one of two remaining Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump in the wake of the 2021 Capitol insurrection, faces the ire of the MAGA base with Trump publicly calling for his defeat. Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, a former Freedom Caucus leader, told colleagues recently he was looking into the race to consider whether to prop up Newhouse’s GOP challenger, Jerrod Sessler, according to a source familiar with the matter. (Perry’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

And in the eleventh hour before a filing deadline late last month, a primary challenger emerged against Gaetz — the leader of the effort to oust McCarthy — who has made no secret of his desire to see Gaetz’s career come to an end. The development comes as some McCarthy associates had been trying to recruit a candidate to topple Gaetz. Now McCarthy allies in the House GOP Conference are considering giving a boost to Aaron Dimmock, the retired Navy officer facing off against Gaetz in the August 20 primary.

“I would really like it if someone were to come here and focus on governing instead of getting on television,” Rep. Derrick Van Orden, a Wisconsin Republican who recently called Gaetz “tubby” in a tense confrontation on the House floor. “The entire conference is sick and tired of Matt Gaetz, Bob Good and (Rep.) Chip Roy (of Texas). They’re bullies and the only way to get back at a bully is to push back hard on that.”

Gaetz’s response: Bring it on.

Gaetz brushed aside his primary challenge, attacking his foe as out-of-step with his Florida panhandle district and saying that the race makes him “as excited as a Golden Corral buffet.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida walks past reporters as he leaves a House GOP caucus meeting at the US Capitol on April 10, 2024. - Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida walks past reporters as he leaves a House GOP caucus meeting at the US Capitol on April 10, 2024. - Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The battles underscore the larger debate within the GOP between members who are open to bipartisan deals to govern incrementally in a divided Washington and hardliners who view such compromises as an affront to conservative orthodoxy — a feud that intensified in the 2010 tea party wave and has grown more pronounced in the Trump era. And while the outcomes in most of these primary races won’t impact the GOP’s efforts to keep the majority, they will shape the makeup of the next House Republican Conference and how they pursue their agenda.

“We go for the most conservative of people to run for office,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, a Freedom Caucus member who is backing GOP challenger Morgan against Timmons, a fellow South Carolinian. “This country is in trouble. We got to step out. And that’s what we’re willing to do.”

‘It’s all the norms that have been undermined’

Unlike in the other races, Bacon’s is a true swing seat — given that Joe Biden carried the district in 2020 — and could help tilt the balance of power in November. Already, both Democratic and GOP groups have poured in roughly the same amount on the airwaves — with a total of $3 million in ad spending so far.

Democrats are hoping state Sen. Tony Vargas can knock off Bacon, who is heavily favored to win his primary against Dan Frei — a conservative candidate who emerged on Nebraska’s political scene in the tea party era a decade ago in an unsuccessful primary bid against former Rep. Lee Terry. He has made the national debt and illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign against Bacon.

“He’s been there eight years. When he went there, we were roughly $17 trillion in debt. We’re $34 trillion in debt,” Frei said in an interview. “When he first got there we had tens of thousands of people crossing the border, we now have millions in this country.”

Asked whether it was fair to single out Bacon, Frei said: “How can you not blame those that are there?”

Another Bacon foe trying to undercut his bid: Eric Underwood, the GOP chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party.

Underwood told CNN his decision to endorse Frei was a personal one and argued Bacon doesn’t represent the values of Nebraska Republicans, citing Bacon’s position on same-sex marriage and his support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, though the incumbent has also backed more stringent border security measures.

The chairman also defended working against an incumbent from his own party. “There’s a lot of misconceptions of what a party is supposed to be doing,” Underwood said in a phone interview. “The objective of the party is to further our principles and the maintenance of the government, of, by and for the people.”

Asked whether he’s worried Frei could cost Republicans the seat in November, Underwood told CNN: “We believe that everybody’s electable if they put the work and the effort into it, and surround their campaign with the values and the principles of the party.”

Underwood said there would be no financial resources or fundraising done by the party for Frei’s campaign. But a pro-Frei mailer attacking Bacon, shared with CNN, indicates it was paid for by “the Nebraska Republican Party.”

Underwood maintains they were fully reimbursed by the Frei campaign for the mailer, and said it’s just one of several party resources that endorsed candidates are allowed to take advantage of.

Good, the House Freedom Caucus chairman, declined to comment on Capitol Hill last week when asked why he was backing Bacon’s opponent. And his office didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.

Rep. Tony Gonzales at the US Capitol in January. Several of Gonzales' colleagues in the House are backing a GOP primary challenger in his race for reelection. - Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Sipa
Rep. Tony Gonzales at the US Capitol in January. Several of Gonzales' colleagues in the House are backing a GOP primary challenger in his race for reelection. - Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Sipa

National groups are coming to Bacon’s defense.

“We wish we weren’t having this internal fight,” said Sarah Chamberlain, head of the center-right Republican Main Street Partnership, which is dropping $450,000 in ads to boost McGuire, Good’s primary challenger in his rural Virginia district.

In an interview, Bacon pushed back against his foes and defended his record. And he said the critics represent a “Steve Bannon faction” of the Nebraska GOP, adding this of his party chairman: “He says he wants unity. I’ve seen more disunity from this leadership team back there dividing us.”

Johnson has endorsed Bacon and campaigned for the congressman in his district in December. Bacon has over 100 endorsements, and no elected official from Nebraska is supporting Frei.

Bacon said that his critics may take issue with some of his votes, including to approve billions in aid to Ukraine. “I’m more of a traditional Republican and some of these folks are definitely isolationist,” he said. “It’s their right to feel that way. I don’t think that’s a Republican.”

Bacon, who has aligned himself with his party’s leadership on key issues, criticized his colleagues for undercutting “the norms” of the House — including by stymying legislation on the first procedural vote, something that had rarely been done before but has been weaponized by hardliners in this Congress.

“It’s all the norms have been undermined by these guys,” Bacon said.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and Sheden Tesfaldet contributed to this report.

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