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Trump loyalty test will shape GOP's 2018 House races

Katie Glueck, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Last October, Alabama Rep. Martha Roby joined dozens of fellow Republicans in disavowing candidate Donald Trump after that infamous tape of his vulgar comments about women surfaced. Nearly a year later, some of her Trump-loving constituents still haven't forgiven her.

And now, from Roby's southeastern Alabama district to congressional seats in South Carolina, Pennsylvania and across the country, Trump-embracing Republican primary challengers are beginning to gear up, seeking to paint GOP incumbents as insufficiently supportive of the president's agenda.

"It's a choice between me, the first guy to endorse him, or a congresswoman who said he was unfit to serve," said state Rep. Barry Moore, a Republican challenging Roby who says he was the first elected official in Alabama to back Trump.

Moore's comments are just a preview of the Trump-driven arguments that primary challengers are poised to make in 2018 -- an election cycle that suddenly looks likely to feature an unexpected surge in contested House races. And it marks the opening of a new front in the internal GOP war that has already yielded public skirmishes on the Senate campaign trail and between the White House and a GOP-led Congress.

"This cycle it seems we're meeting with more primary challengers than we have in any previous cycle that I've been at the Club (for Growth), and I've been at the Club since 2003," said Andy Roth, vice president for government affairs at the conservative Club for Growth, which meets with both House and Senate candidates and has a PAC that can play powerfully in primaries.

Caught up in the clash are incumbents like Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Virginia's Reps. Barbara Comstock and Scott Taylor -- all of whom face primary challenges built on vocal support for the polarizing president.

Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, recently drew an opponent who sought to make the race a referendum on Trump, though Dent last week announced retirement plans. This week, another possible Pennsylvania primary came online, as a potential challenger to Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick formed an exploratory committee, citing in part Fitzpatrick's refusal to vote for Trump, according to the outlet PoliticsPA.

And House Speaker Paul Ryan is also facing a rematch with primary challenger Paul Nehlen, though Ryan beat Nehlen in his 2016 primary by 68 percentage points.

"There may be more, it's still early," said former Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis. "Particularly in these southern, rural districts, that's the most fertile ground for challengers from the right."

Republican officials stress that the emerging House primaries don't yet appear serious. These GOP operatives question the challengers' abilities to raise money or build a following, particularly in moderate districts, including several in Virginia. Plus, the challengers have low name ID, meaning they just aren't well known enough to easily make a dent in the support enjoyed by the GOP incumbents.

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