A quartet of already-nasty 2022 congressional primary races within the Republican Party in the West and Alaska will test whether ex-President Donald Trump can purge those he has identified as his enemies in the party, or whether his nimbus is wearing thin.
Trump has established three top targets. First are Republican women in Congress who backed the second bid to impeach him: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming; and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash. Last week, Trump hosted a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser for Joe Kent, a challenger to Herrera Beutler in Washington’s 3rd District.
He is vengeful and personal. “Murkowski has got to go . . . bad for Alaska . . .I will be there to campaign against her,” Trump said in endorsing GOP challenger Kelly Tshibaka. “The Liz Cheneys of the world, we gotta get rid of them,” he said of Cheney, a steadfast conservative and daughter of ex-Vice President Dick Cheney.
In backing Joe Kent against Herrera Beutler, the ex-president said of the 3rd District lawmaker: “In Congress, Joe will be a warrior for the America First agenda, unlike Jaime Herrera Beutler who voted, despite the facts, against the Republican Party and for the Democrats’ impeachment. In reality, Herrera Beutler voted for Trump’s agenda in Congress 90 percent of the time.
The targeted women in Congress are standing their ground and raising oodles of campaign cash. The Republican National Committee on Friday censured Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., for serving on the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 uprising. The two are, said the RNC, “participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
Herrera Beutler shot back: “January 6th left the realm of legitimate political discourse when it became a violent riot at the U.S. Capitol.” Murkowski fired off a statement: “What happened on January 6, 2021, was an effort to overturn a lawful election resulting in violence and destruction at the Capitol. We must not legitimize those actions which resulted in loss of life and we must learn from that horrible event so history does not repeat itself.”
But Cheney spoke most forcefully to what shapes up as a struggle for conscience, party, and country. “I do not recognize those in my party who have abandoned the Constitution to embrace Donald Trump,” she said. “I will never stop fighting for our constitutional republic. No matter what.”
One more western Republican among the 10 who voted to impeach Trump, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., has returned to the fold. He is boasting of getting an A-plus rating on the Susan B. Anthony List National Pro-Life Scoreboard. He’s leading the anti-environmental Western Caucus of House Republicans, and churning out statements and Tweets about “holding Biden accountable.” Newhouse represents the 4th District in Central Washington, the most conservative in the state.
The Trump targets are getting support in usual and unusual places. Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat, endorsed Murkowski’s reelection Sunday on Face the Nation. She’ll be needing Democrats this fall. Alaska has abandoned its party primary – dominated by the Republican far right – in favor of a wide open system where all names appear on the primary ballot and the four top vote-getters advance to the general election.
A letter backing Cheney and Kinzinger, signed by 146 Republicans across the country, came out Monday. Names on the list include two former Washington congressmen, ex-Reps. Rod Chandler and George Nethercutt. Former President George W. Bush has put $5,800 into Cheney’s campaign war chest, which totaled nearly $5 million at the end of the year, plus $2,800 to Murkowski.
Incumbency counts in these races. Cheney challenger Harriet Hageman may have Trump’s vocal support, but she reported just $380,000 cash-on-hand in the latest federal campaign finance report. Murkowski reported raising $5.9 million with nearly $4.3 million in cash on hand. The figures for Murkowski challenger Kelly Tshibaka: $1.82 million raised with $633,000 in the bank. An “independent” PAC, Alaskans for Lisa, is also collecting campaign cash. Murkowski has support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.
The money gap is narrower down in Southwest Washington. Herrera Beutler reported $1.656 million in the bank at year’s end, but Kent’s war chest totaled $998,000. Another pro-Trump challenger, Heidi St. John, reported $338,000. Democrats put a target on Herrera Beutler’s back in 2018 and 2020 but have as yet no viable candidate in the 2022 contest.
Trump put out for Joe Kent. The top price tag at Mar-a-Lago was $25,000 per couple including a “private reception” plus a picture with the former President. Kent has also drawn endorsements from wacko-birds in the Trump aviary, far-right Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, and Paul Gosar, R-Arizona. Gaetz spoke at a Kent rally last summer at the Clark County Fairgrounds, saying the 3rd District battle was “for the soul of the Republican Party.”
A spokesman for Herrera Beutler delivered what is so far the campaign’s best line, telling a local paper: “A few weeks ago, Jaime brought a jobs fair to the same venue. Today, her opponent is bringing an alleged sex trafficker.” (Gaetz is under a U.S. Justice Department investigation for involvement in sex trafficking and sex with a minor. He denies any wrongdoing and was recently married.)
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has also involved himself in the 3rd and 4th District races. He has endorsed Kent and Jerrod Sessler, a challenger to Newhouse. A former national security adviser to Trump, Flynn wanted Trump to declare martial law and have the military seize ballot boxes, as part of the attempt to overturn results of the 2020 election. Kent spoke last fall at a Washington, D.C., rally in support of those arrested after the January 6 insurrection.
In the world of GOP warfare, some consider Flynn an asset. The campaign of Jerrod Sessler, a Trumpite challenger to Newhouse, touted the general’s endorsement. Despite his advocacy for extra-constitutional actions after the 2020 election, Flynn said of the House candidate: “Jerrod will also fight to protect our Constitutional rights and the rule of law within his district, the state of Washington, and the nation.”
The campaign website for Sessler, a former Navy man, NASCAR driver, and “successful entrepreneur,” sums up themes that Trump forces are bringing to the campaign: “Fighting for Forgotten Victims of J6” and “America First Always.”
As of the beginning of the year, incumbent Newhouse had $855,000 in cash on hand, with Sessler trailing at $201,000. A third candidate, 2020 GOP gubernatorial nominee Loren Culp, raised $144,000 but had banked just $32,000.