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‘Knock it off’: Speaker Mike Johnson tries to stop Republicans from campaigning against each other in bitter primary battles

Hear more on House Republican primary races on “Inside Politics Sunday with Manu Raju” at 8 a.m. ET and 11 a.m. ET.

House Republicans, who have seen their time in the majority devolve into a seemingly endless series of internal party feuds, now have a new problem: GOP lawmakers targeting other sitting members in their primaries.

In at least four primaries – in South Carolina, Illinois, Texas and Virginia – Republican members are actively campaigning against one of their own, inflaming tensions in a conference where emotions are still raw in the aftermath of Kevin McCarthy’s unprecedented ouster atop the House.

Speaker Mike Johnson has had enough.

“I’ve asked them all to cool it,” Johnson told CNN at the House GOP retreat in West Virginia last week. “I am vehemently opposed to member-on-member action in primaries because it’s not productive. And it causes division for obvious reasons, and we should not be engaging in that.”

“So I’m telling everyone who’s doing that to knock it off,” Johnson added. “And both sides, they’ll say, ‘Well, we didn’t start it, they started it.’”

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz – the Florida firebrand who is spearheading the effort against two of the GOP incumbents, Reps. Mike Bost of Illinois and Tony Gonzales of Texas – is unmoved.

“I would love nothing more than to just go after Democrats,” Gaetz, who led the charge to oust McCarthy, told CNN. “But if Republicans are going to dress up like Democrats in drag, I’m going to go after them too. Because at the end of the day, we’re not judged by how many Republicans we have in Congress. We’re judged on whether or not we save the country.”

The feud underscores how the razor-thin House majority has proven to be almost ungovernable, leading to a state of gridlock and internal GOP warfare that has defined the 118th Congress. The battle has often pitted hardliners who advocate a no-compromise approach and want to go toe-to-toe with Democrats – against many Republicans who believe they should aim for incremental victories at a time of divided government.

Yet as they struggle to hang onto their two-seat majority, Republicans have been distracted for months by internal party feuds over tactics, which many fear will only make it harder to stay in power. The primary battles are only adding to the tension.

Rep. Don Bacon, a swing-district Nebraska Republican, said the mood within the House GOP is “depressing” and that his party needs to do “some soul-searching.”

“It is depressing when you have your own team turning on each other because you don’t win when that happens. Teams win,” Bacon said. “We’ve undermined the norms of what we’ve had going back, really, a couple centuries, frankly. … And now we’re campaigning in each others’ districts. It undermines the team. So, I think it’s wrong.”

Rep. William Timmons, a Republican from South Carolina, speaks at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on September 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. - Al Drago/Pool/Getty Images
Rep. William Timmons, a Republican from South Carolina, speaks at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on September 30, 2021 in Washington, DC. - Al Drago/Pool/Getty Images

The primary attacks go both ways

Rep. William Timmons of South Carolina is one of the embattled incumbents trying to hang on, as several members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus are trying to boot him from the seat in favor of his right-wing opponent.

Rep. Ralph Norman, a fellow South Carolina Republican and member of the House Freedom Caucus, said he and about a dozen other House GOP hardliners are working on holding a “big event” for Timmons’ challenger, Adam Morgan, who is the leader of South Carolina’s Freedom Caucus.

Norman brushed off the criticism from his colleagues and said Morgan will be “one of us.”

“We have to make some drastic changes,” Norman told CNN. “We’re losing our country. We’re going bankrupt. He just had to take a leadership role in my opinion. And we’ve got a man now that’s heading the Freedom Caucus in South Carolina. He will fight for freedom. And he will be one of us.”

Timmons, who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, defended his conservative voting record and aired his frustrations during a closed-door meeting last week, according to sources in the room.

“I don’t think it’s about me, I think they’re fighting over other things. But you know, at the end of day, if you’re not friends with somebody that votes with you 94% of the time, you’re not going to have a lot of friends,” Timmons told CNN.

But it’s not just hardliners who are making moves against their colleagues. Half a dozen House Republicans who are normally allied with leadership, including House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers, are slated to attend an upcoming fundraiser for the Republican candidate challenging Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good, according to multiple sources.

Good was one of the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy and has created his share of enemies inside the conference with his brash style – including fellow Virginia Republican Rep. Jen Kiggans, who is among those boosting Good’s primary opponent, Navy SEAL John McGuire.

Rep. Eli Crane, an Arizona Republican who also voted to oust McCarthy, says he too is being targeted in his primary because of his vote.

“You know how this town works,” Crane told CNN. “You can’t come up here and just start making waves and not pay for it, right? So the way I see it is good. It just reaffirms that I’m doing what I came here to do.”

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz raises Brandon Herrara's hand after both speak at a rally for Herrara at the Angry Elephant in San Antonio, Texas, on March 13. - Jessica Phelps/San Antonio Express-News/Getty Images
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz raises Brandon Herrara's hand after both speak at a rally for Herrara at the Angry Elephant in San Antonio, Texas, on March 13. - Jessica Phelps/San Antonio Express-News/Getty Images

GOP split screen

The member-on-member primary fights have become such a headache that Johnson and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise both took time during a closed-door presentation at their annual retreat last week to discourage members from supporting primary challenges against each other, according to sources in the room.

Yet across the country on that same day: Gaetz was rallying in Texas for Brandon Herrera in his bid to defeat Gonzales ahead of the May 28 runoff.

Gaetz was embracing the split-screen moment.

“While the rest of my colleagues on Thursday will be on retreat, I’m going to be on the advance,” he said last week.

Gaetz’s beef with Gonzales: His vote in 2022 for a gun safety law that was enacted in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which is part of Gonzales’ district. Herrera, a gun-rights activist, has seized on that vote in his campaign to oust Gonzales in the runoff.

CNN has reached out to Herrera for comment on this story.

Gonzales, who represents a border district, also tangled with GOP hardliners – including fellow Texan Chip Roy – as they were negotiating the House Republicans’ immigration proposal, even as he voted for the final product, known as HR 2. And in 2022, the Texas Republican voted with a minority of his conference to codify same-sex marriage.

Gonzales says he stands by his votes.

“Of course,” Gonzales said. “Look what happened in Uvalde should have never happened. Not because he was 18 years old. Not because it was an AR, because he was batsh*t crazy, right? So crazy people should not have access to kill innocent people.”

Gonzales added: “On same-sex marriage, look I’m a father of six. Whatever a gay is, I’m about as further away as far away from that as possible. But I’ve served with all different kinds of people in the military. You name it and I look at … the merit of an individual.”

When asked for his reaction about Gaetz’s move against him, Gonzales said: “Who?”

“I don’t pay attention to other members,” Gonzales added. “I’ve got enough going on in my district. We got our hands full.”

Tensions on the rise

Bost, the southern Illinois Republican, won Trump’s endorsement after Johnson and Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina, the House GOP’s campaign chief, went to Mar-a-Lago to seek the former president’s backing. Still, Gaetz campaigned for Bost’s opponent, Darren Bailey, ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

Gaetz is on a vanity tour, Bost said.

“Well, that’s because it’s about Matt Gaetz,” Bost said. “It’s not about what is best for the future of this United States.”

In interviews with scores of GOP members, the anger within the conference was palpable.

“I find that unacceptable behavior. I’ve never worked against another Republican, even ones I had profound disagreement with,” veteran GOP Rep. Tom Cole, a member of the leadership team, told CNN. “They need to remember it’s a very small town, you’re gonna see them again, and they’re gonna be here. And it’s just a very unprofessional way to act.”

Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales is seen outside of the US Capitol Building on November 14, 2023, in Washington, DC. - Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales is seen outside of the US Capitol Building on November 14, 2023, in Washington, DC. - Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

And party leaders said they would rally behind Gonzales, even as they expressed concerns about his race.

“I’m concerned anytime one of our incumbents are in a runoff,” Hudson told CNN. Asked what he thought about Gaetz’s efforts, Hudson said: “I don’t think much about it. I don’t think it’ll have a factor.”

But Gaetz didn’t rule out intervening in other members’ districts.

“I will go to any place in this country where we can pick up seats, where we have Republicans who are not acting in adherence with our values and our principles,” Gaetz said. “Let the battle begin.”

The fight is exposing divisions in the Texas delegation as well. Roy, who battled behind the scenes with Gonzales last year before they ultimately settled on a GOP immigration plan that passed the House, wouldn’t say if he’d back Gonzales.

“Look, I haven’t gotten into any of that at this point,” Roy said.

Gonzales downplayed any support his opponent might get from other lawmakers, dismissing Herrera, who has a successful Youtube channel with millions of subscribers, as a “YouTuber.”

“I don’t even know what a YouTuber does. I mean, I know what I did to become a (Navy) Master Chief: I busted my ass, I fought in two wars,” Gonzales told CNN. “So I’m not worried about it. Let them all pop their heads out. Anyone who wants to come against me, pop their heads out.”

CNN’s Sheden Tesfaldet, Christine Park, Morgan Rimmer and Haley Talbot contributed to this report.

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