Representative Paul Gosar’s August 30 primary was expected to be a sleepy affair in the dog days of summer. The three-term Arizona Republican faced a nominal challenge from Ray Strauss, a pastor and city councilman with little name recognition and little money.
Then, a super PAC started spending hundreds of thousands of dollars against Gosar, and suddenly the race was not so sleepy.
Gosar, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, is backed by the Club for Growth and Ted Cruz. He’s cut from much the same cloth as candidates who, in recent years, have gone on offense against establishment-aligned incumbents as retaliation for their voting records. But for the second time this month, the challenger has become the challenged. Last month, Kansas representative Tim Huelskamp was ousted by a primary challenger with the backing of groups allied with House leadership. Now, Gosar faces a similar situation.
As primaries go, this likely won’t be the marquee race on August 30. But the primary, to some conservatives, looks like an early salvo in a longer game. Establishment-allied forces have figured out how to beat Republican insurgents at their own game, and candidates and outside groups are looking ahead to an onslaught in the coming years.
Gosar’s primary this year closely resembles Huelskamp’s primary in 2014, two years before the effort that ultimately cost him his seat. Like Gosar, Huelskamp faced a seemingly cursory challenge from a political newcomer. And like Gosar, Huelskamp had managed to anger both business interests in his district and Republican leaders in the House. He won anyway, but his 55-46 margin of victory emboldened his opponents: If an underfunded, long-shot primary challenger could keep the race that close with help from outside groups, they thought, imagine what a stronger challenger could do.
Two years later, Huelskamp lost his primary, and his spot on the ballot in November. If Strauss does well enough on Tuesday, Gosar may be similarly vulnerable in 2018.
The errors that ultimately undid Huelskamp were unforced. A number of votes against leadership in his first term put him on leadership’s bad side, and lost him his spot on the Agriculture Committee. Losing that committee spot and voting against the Farm Bill put him on the outs with agribusiness interests in his largely rural district. Those local interests, in turn, helped fund a super PAC that spent more than $200,000 targeting Huelskamp in 2014, keeping the race close enough to create momentum for a more serious primary challenge this year.
Gosar, too, has gotten crosswise with business interests in his district. And those interests have found allies among D.C.-establishment types who dislike his record of voting against Republican leadership.
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The group spending to unseat Gosar, Right Way Super PAC, is decidedly a D.C. entity. It’s run by Dan Flynn, a GOP consultant and former leadership staffer who was involved in discussions about ousting Huelskamp earlier this Summer, according to Politico. But its funding comes from Gosar’s own backyard: The single largest donation is from Western Growers Association, a group that represents produce farmers in the West, particularly in Arizona and California. As of August 10, the group had donated $200,000 to Right Way, and had maxed out to Strauss’s campaign. Most of the other donations are also from agribusiness interests.
Yuma, in the southwest corner of Arizona near the border, is a major source for fresh produce in the winter months. It also happens to sit in Gosar’s district. And Gosar has an acrimonious relationship with the Western Growers.
Much of the labor force for the farms represented by Western Growers is supplied by migrant workers, and the group advocates for changes to the immigration system that would increase the supply of legal workers, acknowledging that many migrant workers, at this point, are working in the country illegally. The group broached that topic with Gosar several years ago, and did not take kindly to his reaction, which was to rudely belittle their concerns. Efforts by the group to repair the relationship since have not been well received by Gosar.
Gosar, too, has gotten crosswise with business interests in his district. And those interests have found allies among D.C.-establishment types.
“We don’t expect every member of Congress to agree with us all the time, but we do expect legislators to try to work constructively with us to solve difficult problems affecting the livelihoods of their constituents,” says Western Growers executive vice president Dave Puglia. “Mr. Gosar chose to denigrate our members and dismiss their legitimate concerns. We find that unacceptable.”
Some Arizona Republicans note that Strauss is a less-than-ideal candidate for those hoping to oust Gosar, because he has not been a strong fundraiser: He’s brought in just over $100,000 since he entered the race in July of 2015, and had just $8,166 in his campaign account on August 10. That leaves him poorly positioned to capitalize on the outside help his campaign has received.
“Ray Strauss seems like a really nice guy,” says one Arizona Republican consultant. “But if he wins it won’t have anything to do with him.”
Strauss’s campaign disputes the idea that this race has become a proxy battle in a bigger intra-party war. “With all due respect, we’re not really running for them,” says Strauss campaign manager Caleb Humphrey. Humphrey notes Strauss has not attacked the Freedom Caucus, nor has he even ruled out joining the group. “We wouldn’t be opposed to working with anyone, as long as they hold the ideals of the district, and respect our constituents and are willing to work with us,” Humphrey says.
But, he says, the campaign is focused on more pressing matters than “what cool kids table are we going to sit at when we get to Washington, D.C.”
Gosar, to be fair, does not have the level of campaign or fundraising infrastructure that might have been required to sustain a more prolonged attack. “He’s never been an aggressive fundraiser,” acknowledges Gosar consultant Jason Roe. “I think that’s part of what made this group think he was vulnerable.”
Roe says the campaign started gearing up for a potential race as they watched the attacks that ultimately ousted Huelskamp.
“I feel like we’re prepared. I feel like given the resources that we have, we are in a position to defend him,” says Roe. But, he acknowledges, “This is obviously an environment in which incumbents are more vulnerable.” There is “definitely an attitude of, ‘Throw the bums out’— even if it’s our bum.”
By most accounts, Gosar remains favored to win on Tuesday. Though Right Way’s mail and digital buys will continue through Election Day, their decision not to renew television and radio buys that ended August 18 does not smack of optimism.
But the biggest consequences of this primary will likely be felt next cycle.
“Moving forward I think we’re going to be better prepared,” says Roe. “We are definitely going to be a lot more aggressive about fundraising and making sure that Paul never looks like an attractive target again.”
#related#Allies of the Freedom Caucus say all members need to be taking lessons from this cycle and beginning to prepare for potential primary challenges next time around.
“Pro-growth conservatives in the House need to watch this cycle and be thinking about 2018, because they’ve obviously got a target on their back,” says Doug Sachtleben, communications director at the Club for Growth, which endorsed Gosar this cycle, despite backing his primary opponent and even spending against him in 2012. This cycle, Sachtleben says, should serve as a “wake-up call to conservative groups” who have become accustomed to playing offense in primaries: Moving forward, they must be ready to play defense as well.
— Alexis Levinson is National Review’s senior political reporter.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its original publication.