DES MOINES — With a quarter of House Republicans who are seeking re-election facing primary challenges, the majority caucus is stuck between a budget rock and tea party hard place that could delay adjournment, according to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines.
“What’s better for those members who are being primaried from the right: Compromising with Democrats and moving to the center and governing from a mainstream fashion or showing your right-wing bona fides to your Republican primary voting base?” the Democratic leader said.
“That’s just politics,” replied Rep. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, a freshman facing a challenger whom he defeated in the GOP primary two years ago. McCarthy “is just trying to stir up some division in the party.”
Garrett, a farmer and former assistant attorney general, isn’t worried about his conservative credentials.
“I’m pretty conservative, and I have been all along,” Garrett said, pointing out he’s anti-abortion, pro-2nd Amendment and the sponsor of tough immigration legislation. “I’m a fiscal and social conservative. I was a campaign chairman for Ronald Reagan.”
That might not be conservative enough for today’s tea party-infused GOP right wing, McCarthy said. In the House, 11 of 46 incumbents seeking re-election, including six first-term representatives, face challenges. He calls it “epic in scope” for 25 percent of the majority party’s returning members to face primaries.
“It raises the specter that it will be a real strain for Republicans to compromise when they’re facing a primary from the right in two-and-a-half months,” he said, referring to the June 5 primary election. “If that wasn’t the case, we could have passed some of these budgets two or three weeks ago.”
Lawmakers, especially those facing primary challenges, have an incentive to finish their work and adjourn. Although they can campaign during the session, they can’t raise campaign funds until after adjournment. The longer the Legislature is in session, the greater that advantage is for their challengers.
Rep. Kim Pearson, R-Pleasant Hill, a freshman who is not seeking re-election, agrees with McCarthy that some GOP incumbents might be feeling the heat of primary challenges.
“I don’t disagree with (McCarthy’s) premise,” said Pearson, who is credited with recruiting some GOP challengers. “People are highly motivated to do the right thing.”
However, most Republicans tend to agree with Garrett’s “it’s just politics” view of McCarthy’s analysis of the House Republican caucus. They point out that among those facing primary challenges are some of the most conservative members of the House, including Rep. Tom Shaw, R-Laurens, a tea party activist and confidante of Pearson.
She points out that in some cases, such as Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, who was arrested on a charge of operating while intoxicated, Republicans face primary opponents for issues not related to their political philosophies.
Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Okoboji, a banker and member of the class of 2010, suggests McCarthy’s analysis is skewed by the differences in political philosophies between the minority leader’s Des Moines district and outstate Iowa.
“What he considers hot topics and controversial are neither hot topics nor controversial in my district,” Smith said, referring to issues such as gun rights and abortion limitations.
Facing a primary challenger hasn’t changed his view on budget issues or anything else, said Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota.
“There are some personal battles being waged,” the first-termer said. “But whether or not I have a primary, I vote the way I said I would vote.”
But Rep. Dave Tjepkes, R-Gowrie, a 10-year veteran retiring at the end of the year, sees “a degree of truth” in McCarthy’s analysis.
Primaries are forcing GOP representatives to “try to find balance,” Tjepkes said, and “it consumes their time responding to these challenges.”
On issues involving guns, abortion and immigration, for example, “they’re trying to reflect their districts’ attitudes.”
The divisions are holding up action on the health and human services budget where Republicans have proposed an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood, Tjepkes said.
Still, he doesn’t subscribe to McCarthy’s theory that those differences in the GOP caucus will delay adjournment, which is scheduled for April 17 when lawmakers’ daily expense money runs out.
“We’ll battle it out in caucus,” Tjepkes said, referring to the closed-door meetings each party has to determine positions on legislation. It’s harder for the majority than McCarthy’s minority party “because we have to govern.”
“Sometimes, being in the majority is more difficult,” said Tjepkes, who has served in both the majority and minority since being elected in 2002. For the majority, “sometimes, it’s a choice between governing and wanting to vote ‘no.’”
“We’ll have to decide what needs to be done,” Tjepkes said. “We have to fund government. Sometimes, you hold your nose and vote, but shutting down government is not an option.”
Smith chalks up McCarthy’s talk about divisions in the GOP caucus to political spin.
“It might be a good talking point for him, but I don’t see it that way at all,” Smith said.