John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Primary Survival Guide

Posted on October 22, 2013


Congressman Tim Huelskamp warned last week that any Republican who voted to open up the government and extend the debt ceiling would face a primary challenge.

With all due respect to the Kansas congressman, with congressional approval ratings hovering around 10 percent, anyone who is up for reelection next year in either chamber should expect a primary challenge.

Here are some tips for how to survive a primary challenge:

  • Under promise and over deliver. My old boss, former Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), preached this doctrine every day. The reverse is even truer. Promise to vote to defund ObamaCare, but don’t guarantee that ObamaCare will be defunded. Promise to vote to balance the budget, but don’t guarantee that the budget will be balanced. If you make outlandish promises that can never be met, you will lose credibility with your voters.

  • Represent your constituents to Washington, not Washington to your constituents. Make sure you make clear that you are an advocate for your constituents, and don’t be stuck being an advocate for Washington back home. Don’t defend a dysfunctional process; demand that the process be reformed. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) effectively made the argument that he was the best advocate for change in his successful bid to get renominated. His Senate colleague Bob Bennett (R) seemed to be stuck defending the status quo in his losing bid.

  • Money is important, but it is not the only thing. Most incumbents are going to have a fundraising advantage. But money only takes you so far. You have to develop a passionate following, especially in low-turnout elections, and that means going beyond the D.C. fundraisers and a reliance on 30-second commercials.

  • Don’t lecture your constituents — find common ground. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) didn’t lecture his constituents on the need for immigration reform when he ran against J.D. Hayworth in 2010. He said, “complete the danged fence,” as he walked with Sheriff Paul Babeu on the Arizona-Mexico border. He focused on common ground with his constituents and ignored the immigration bill that he had co-sponsored with former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) the previous Congress.

  • Be the insider in your district, not the Washington insider. When ex.-Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.) ran against then-Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.) in 1992, most Beltway observers thought that Russo, who was a deputy whip and a powerful friend of Dan Rostenkowski, had it in the bag. But Lipinski, a low-key ward healer, easily defeated the more voluble Russo by tending to the home cooking. He used Russo’s high Washington profile against him and shocked D.C. insiders by being the Chicago insider.

  • Translate why your clout matters. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) won a tough campaign against ex-Rep. Sandy Adams (R) in the last election by taking head-on why his position as chairman of the Transportation Committee mattered. Adams spoke Tea Party, while Mica talked roads and bridges. In increasingly congested Orlando, Mica’s message won out.

  • Be true to your beliefs, but be in step with your constituents. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) turned back a Tea Party challenge in the last election because he focused on his conservative bone fides. Fred is a pragmatic conservative, not a raging ideologue. But in his primary campaign, he focused more on his conservative record and less on his boundless pragmatism. It worked.

  • Make clear not only that you want to win, but that you are going to win. Nothing makes opponents think twice about opposing you than the inevitability that their opposition will be for naught. And the most important part of driving home that narrative is to be aggressively positive about your eventual victory. Don’t let a negative poll divert you from the simple narrative that you will win.

No member of Congress has a constitutional right to keep his or her office, and the Founding Fathers designed our political system to keep office holders honest and accountable. This promises to be a banner year for primary contests, no matter which way a member voted on the government shutdown. But as long as a member understands who sent him or her to Washington in the first place, that member should be able to survive any primary challenge.