Never in nearly 42 years in Congress has Rep. Chris Smith had a primary quite like his last — when he spent the final weeks getting bombarded by angry constituents who felt he crossed President Donald Trump.
The New Jersey Republican won renomination with his lowest primary vote share ever, after he voted to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. And his opponent seized on it, stoking an angry and anti-incumbent mood sweeping through Republican primaries around the country.
Republican members from Utah to Texas to South Dakota who also voted for the Jan. 6 commission have had a similar experience, marking an especially intense primary season for the GOP. The bottom has dropped out for the Republicans who did support a Jan. 6 investigation: They are running 13 points weaker than their average colleague in their primaries, according to a POLITICO analysis of 2022 primary results so far.
But even Republicans who didn’t take that vote are running into stronger primary opposition than in the last midterm, the analysis shows. The average incumbent House Republican pulled 88 percent support in party primaries four years ago. That’s dropped this year to 75 percent for GOP members who didn’t vote for the Jan. 6 commission — and cratered to 62 percent for the incumbents who did back it.
Altogether, the numbers paint a portrait of an angry base sending a message to its ambassadors in Washington: Don’t step out of line, or else.
“Simply being an incumbent puts you in those crosshairs,” said Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah).
POLITICO’s analysis averaged results of all of the completed vote counts in House GOP primaries so far this year.
The current House Select Committee on Jan. 6, which has grabbed the spotlight with televised hearings this month, is not the commission that 35 House Republicans supported. That proposed investigative body died in the Senate, but that nuance is often lost on voters — and ignored by opponents eager to exploit an angry GOP electorate looking to punish any whiff of disloyalty to Trump.
“The irony is the commission that I voted for would have avoided this current commission,” said Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah), who won his primary — but, with votes still being tallied, has less than 60 percent support from GOP voters. “My challenger looks at this as an opportunity, thinking he can disingenuously persuade people otherwise. It’s just not accurate.”
Five of the 35 Republican members who voted for that investigation had primaries on Tuesday night. One, Rep. Michael Guest (R-Miss.), prevailed after being forced into a runoff in which his opponent continued to weaponize the commission vote. Another, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), lost to Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) in a redistricting-created clash where Miller leaned heavily on Davis’s Jan. 6 vote.
The stats for the commission voters are stark. Heading into Tuesday’s primaries, more than half (eight out of 15) of the members who voted for the Jan. 6 commission got less than 60 percent of the vote in a GOP primary — dangerous territory for an incumbent. For comparison: Of the 102 House Republicans who had GOP primaries earlier this year, only 15 of them fell under that threshold.
So far only three members who backed the commission have lost, all under additional difficult circumstances. One of them also voted to impeach Trump, and two others faced fellow incumbents in redistricting-fueled primaries.
But the specter of costly, months-long primaries and too-close-for-comfort winning margins, which dozens more House Republicans are facing this year, could ultimately deter others from bucking party orthodoxy or taking a tough vote of conscience in the future.
In TV ads, debates and mailers, challengers seized on the Jan. 6 commission vote to cast the incumbents as insufficiently conservative. Some were even inspired to launch bids because of the vote.
The perils of the vote were apparent from the start of the primary season. Rep. Van Taylor (R-Texas), one of the 35 Republicans to back the commission, drew several opponents for his March 1 primary and was ultimately forced into a runoff. (He announced plans to retire shortly after the primary, after admitting to an extramarital affair with the widow of a former member of ISIS.)
“Every time I talked, [I] brought it up,” said Keith Self, who won a runoff slot with Taylor and is now the GOP nominee.
“It was the central point,” Self said. “There were other votes. There were other things. But that was a big one. I mean I’ll admit that was a big one. It was a big meaningful one here in the district.”
In Idaho, GOP Rep. Mike Simpson had to beat back a rematch from an attorney who previously ran against him in 2014 and launched a second bid zeroing in the commission vote. Simpson won with 55 percent, after spending nearly $1 million in the run-up to the primary.
Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) also faced another matchup with the same candidate he faced during his first run in 2014. He prevailed, but with less than 60 percent of the primary vote, a notable dip for the incumbent.
Some of the lower-than-usual victory margins could be ascribed to redistricting. Nearly all members inherited some new voters amid changes to the lines of their districts. But Democrats are also dealing with redistricting, and their average incumbent’s performance in party primaries hasn’t shifted compared to the last midterm, holding steady at 90 percent.
Plus, many Republicans had only minor tweaks to their constituencies — and at least one didn’t see any change.
In South Dakota’s at-large district, GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson got just under 60 percent after a serious primary challenge from state Rep. Taffy Howard, who took aim at the incumbent for backing the commission and for voting to certify the election results.
A pro-Howard super PAC went beyond Jan. 6 in its attacks on Johnson, running a spot warning that Johnson “denies that the communists stole the election from President Trump.”
“I do think you see a lot more primaries,” Johnson said. “I think that there are so many disagreements within the Republican Party that people feel like they need to litigate those in primaries.”
But Johnson said he didn’t regret any of his votes, either for the commission or to certify the election results.
“I’m a big believer in the Constitution — that’s generally an important characteristic of a Republican,” Johnson said. “A clear and plain reading of the Constitution is: Members of Congress will be witnesses to a ceremonial event, not super-judges.”
It’s not just Republicans who backed the Jan. 6 investigation that have had primary trouble.
Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and William Timmons (R-S.C.) all got under 55 percent of the vote. None backed the commission, though Mace faced a Trump-endorsed challenger anyway.
“They are very polarized, very angry,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a former GOP campaign chief, of the electorate. “So that’s a high-risk time for an incumbent.”
“There’s always a frustration when you’re the minority,” Cole said, adding that reality is often ignored. “You can fight awfully hard, but you’re still going to lose given the vote total.”
In interviews, many of the GOP members said they were forced to repeatedly explain that the Select Committee on the Jan. 6 attacks is not the version of the investigation they supported. The proposal they backed would have been an independent commission modeled after the one that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with equal say for GOP members — and not just Trump foes Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.
But when that proposal died in the Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi unilaterally created a new committee. And after some partisan bickering, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy yanked all five of his picks from serving on the panel and refused to participate
That kind of distinction is often lost on voters.
“When they hear what I voted for, they’re fine with it,” said Curtis, who sailed through his Utah primary on Tuesday despite his support for the commission. “But the assumption is that I voted for the one that we’re actually seeing right now, so it takes some explaining.”
In Smith’s New Jersey seat, the distortion was even greater. He said he was fielding constant questions from voters on why he voted to impeach Trump — which he didn’t. And he accused his opponent of spreading that falsehood.
“Frankly, there were more lies in this race than I ever had in 23 races. I first ran in ‘78,” Smith said in an interview after his primary.
His defeated GOP challenger, Mike Crispi, said he never accused Smith of that — but added that voters were so angry at his Jan. 6 commission vote that they “look at it as a third impeachment.”
“People are connecting a Jan. 6 vote to impeachment, I can’t help that they do that,” Crispi said. “I can’t help that they look at his record that is so left and then correlate it with being anti-Trump.”
Crispi hasn’t ruled out another challenge — and he believes he’s already had an impact on Smith, after receiving grateful calls and texts last week when the incumbent declined to support Congress’ new bipartisan gun safety package.
“He definitely is voting more carefully,” Crispi said. “That gun control bill shows that we’re in his head because in any other circumstance, he would have voted yes on that.”