Republicans, who came within a mere five seats of a majority in 2020, remain clear favorites for House control in 2022. But as Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy continues to raise campaign cash at a dizzying pace — reportedly raising $72.4 million in 2021 and distributing more than $35 million of it to the NRCC and Republican candidates — there are plenty of unresolved questions about what the House GOP conference will look like in 2023.
McCarthy, who has watched Speaker Nancy Pelosi preside with almost no margin of error for the last year, has privately told allies he is more concerned about whether he'll be able to "govern" next year than about simply whether he'll take over as speaker.
If Republicans were to pick up just ten seats, they'd hold the exact same margin Democrats hold now. It's easy to see how a handful of more senior, moderate members could defect and side Democrats on key votes, or how an uprising by a growing "America First" MAGA squad could force GOP leaders to scramble for Democratic votes to get must-pass bills across the finish line — a nightmare for McCarthy and current whip Steve Scalise.
On the other hand, if Republicans were to pick up 30 seats, McCarthy would have much more breathing room and it could be considerably easier to keep his party in line. But the larger the "red wave," the more confrontational a GOP majority would feel compelled to be against the Biden administration — potentially pitting a large raft of new swing district GOP freshmen against the demands of the even-larger Freedom Caucus and MAGA crowd.
Ultimately, 2022 primaries will be the single biggest determinant of the House GOP's orientation in 2023. And as redistricting gradually transitions into the primary season (which kicks off March 1 in Texas), there are already several dozen critical intra-GOP fights brewing.
The most media-saturated GOP primaries will involve Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump last January. But it's a small pool: it's unclear Reps. Liz Cheney (WY-AL) or Tom Rice (SC-07) even have viable paths to renomination, and Reps. Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), John Katko (NY-24) and Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16) are retiring. GOP Rep. Fred Upton (MI-06) is undecided on running after redistricting paired him with another GOP incumbent.
Instead, the more consequential, larger batch of primaries involves "traditionalist" GOP incumbents who didn't vote to impeach, but broke with Trump/party orthodoxy on other votes — such as certifying the AZ/PA election results, launching a formal January 6 investigation and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. These members say Reps. Chris Smith (NJ-04) or Mike Simpson (ID-02), tend not to earn as much ink or cable news notoriety.
Fealty to Trump continues to be the dominant theme to base GOP voters, and Trump appears more eager than ever to expand his retribution tour. But as we saw in the TX-06 special election last May, a Trump endorsement alone isn't a guarantee of victory. Without a Twitter account or a fundraising apparatus funneling funds to his endorsees, Trump has largely left it up to MAGA candidates to raise money and amplify his endorsement to voters.
"Trump's endorsement is next to impossible to beat in a multi-candidate field," says one GOP operative familiar with a multi-million dollar independent expenditure operation. "But I do think Trump is human, and in head-to-head environments, he has more exposure."
The strategist went on to say that although they don't think Trump's image moves much among GOP base voters, their organization is privately poll-testing Trump against Gov. Ron DeSantis in an imaginary 2024 presidential primary as a proxy to gauge Trump's base sway from month to month. And, the group has found Trump's lead varies from 25 points in the Deep South to single digits in the Midwest, with a tie among GOP voters familiar with both.
That means non-Trump-favored Republicans, while not doomed, have had to get creative. New Rep. Jake Ellzey (TX-06), for example, not only played up his fighter pilot biography but stealthily activated Democrats to vote against Trump's endorsee, Susan Wright, a late incumbent's widow who proved a poor fundraiser. Other Republicans will seek to weaponize opponents' personal skeletons and hope Trump prioritizes bigger races/grudges.
The key figure in all of this, of course, is McCarthy. The would-be speaker has at times acted as Trump's political consigliere and needs to remain in his good graces. But he also doesn't want or need GOP fratricide jeopardizing party unity heading into the midterms. To what extent McCarthy can play peacemaker or ward off Trump from wading into races against members of his own conference could determine how hard McCarthy's job gets later.
Below, we've categorized Republicans by the number of primary "risk factors" they face:
Republican Risk Factors
- Voted against objections to certifying the 2020 election in both Arizona and Pennsylvania
- Voted to impeach former President Donald Trump in January 2021
- Voted for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021
- Redistricting is poised to significantly alter the incumbent's district
- Has a credible announced primary opponent
- Has a primary opponent endorsed by Donald Trump
Subscribers have access to a detailed analysis of 25 House GOP primaries to watch, including many of these at-risk incumbents and open seats. These fights could slow or accelerate House Republicans' pro-Trump makeover in the coming months..