The anger commenced not long after Tuesday’s collapse of the Senate GOP bill to replace Obamacare. The Senate Conservatives Fund promised to "identify, recruit, and fund conservative challengers” to GOP lawmakers who vote against a clean repeal.
It’s no empty threat in a Republican Party that’s seen a handful of incumbents defeated — or nearly-defeated — in primaries in recent years.
Senior GOP officials spent much of Tuesday surveying the anger and frustration within their own party and taking calls from bitterly disappointed contributors, some of whom threatened to turn off the cash spigot. Senators who refused to support the bill, the party officials predicted, would see their fundraising take an immediate hit.
Texas businessman Doug Deason, a Trump backer and the son of billionaire Darwin Deason, said he and other major GOP donors were warming to the idea of funding primary challenges to senators who had opposed the health care bill. There was growing frustration, he said, over the failure to advance the president’s agenda.
In a text message referring to three senators — Sens. Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Shelley Moore Capito — who played a role in sinking the bill, Deason ripped “the spineless Republican members from Maine, Arizona and West Virginia who seem to believe that Obamacare is actually succeeding.”
He added: “It will be disappointing to see these three lose their reelection campaigns to Democrats — unless we can find better candidates to run in the primary races against them.”
Arizona’s Flake is one of two Republicans up for reelection in 2018 who have been on the wrong side of President Trump since the fall. Along with Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, he appears likely to draw stiff primary competition next year.
The White House has already been in contact with potential challengers to Flake, who’s facing serious pressure from the right. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward has already announced her challenge and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham and state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, both from the Trump wing of the party, are considering jumping in.
Heller, another critic of the health care measure who sought to inoculate himself from political pressure by aligning himself with his state’s soon-to-retire Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, found himself in the White House cross-hairs weeks ago.
An outside group led by the president’s top campaign advisers threatened a massive advertising campaign against Heller over his stance, and right-wing activists in the state have talked about fielding a primary challenger against the first-term lawmaker, though none has yet declared any intention to run.
An even larger group of Republicans could face blowback back home from this week’s events when they are up for reelection in 2020.
Tops among them are South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who have frequently been at odds with Trump and have alienated his closest supporters. Both have been openly critical of the president, and have drawn the ire of fellow Republicans in states where Trump won easily in November.
But Graham — now serving in his third term — has survived tough primary challenges before. And much of the criticism of the freshman Sasse hinges on frustrated Republicans’ perception that he might mount a primary challenge of his own against Trump in 2020.
Another GOP senator from a pro-Trump state, Bill Cassidy, also face a more tenuous primary situation after joining with Graham to try and create an alternative to the Senate’s health care proposal.
“The Republicans really haven’t had the president’s back,” said Jeff Crouere, a conservative New Orleans radio host who served as a co-chair of Trump’s efforts in Louisiana in 2016. “I got involved in the Tea Party movement in 2009 and this was one of our big issues: repealing and replacing Obamacare. And we’ve been sending people up there for eight years pledging to do it, and now that we have the power we don’t do it? It’s very, very disappointing.”
Crouere added that while it’s still early, Cassidy’s attempt to find an alternative to the initial Senate plan could come back and bite him ahead of 2020. “He ran as a conservative, and he’s been acting much more moderate since his election. And I think there’s a disconnect between his votes and the people of Louisiana,” he said. “I would certainly like to see much more enthusiastic support for the president from Senator Cassidy.”
The moderate Collins has also been a thorn in the White House’s side on occasion, but much of the speculation about her political future revolves around whether she will jump into Maine’s open gubernatorial race in 2018 — not on the shape of her 2020 re-election bid. In 2014, despite persistent conservative grumbling, she had no primary opposition at all.
Capito — who represents West Virginia, a state Trump won by 42 points — was one of the most front-and-center critics of the measure. But as the state’s first GOP senator in decades, she appeared to face limited pushback at home from conservatives.
“She’s extremely popular, and it’s an extremely complicated subject,” said former West Virginia GOP chairman Mike Stuart, the president’s campaign chair in the state. “I don’t think there’s any weakening of support for Senator Capito. She’s doing what’s best for West Virginia.”
In any case, some Republicans asserted Tuesday, Capito and her fellow Obamacare repeal skeptics will have an opportunity to smooth things over in the weeks to come, when the chamber tackles other items on the Trump agenda.
“It is very difficult for a Republican who could not get to yes to explain why they were not able to do so in the time they were allotted when there were senators who were able to do that,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “But if they can come off this experience and get tax reform done, and hopefully revisit health care at some point, they mitigate some of the problems that some of this debate caused.”
Others suggested that those who opposed the bill might be safer than they appear at the moment. In the days leading up to the legislation’s collapse, senior party officials reviewed polling indicating that the conservative base wasn’t enthusiastic about the replacement bill. Plus, outside efforts like Senate Conservatives Fund have failed in the past to mount serious primary challenges.
Even in the states where support for Trump remains strongest, the Senate’s failure to pass a health care overhaul is not yet major cause of concern among his most prominent supporters.
"Everybody’s view on health care is based on their personal circumstances," said Stuart. "This is really the toughest issue facing America, and I have to give the Trump administration tremendous credit for taking on such a weighty subject."