Speaker Johnson tells bitter GOP primary rivals 'knock it off' to keep party unified

 March 18, 2024

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has a strong message for bitter GOP primary rivals pulling out all the stops to get elected, including sharp partisan attacks against fellow party members.

I’ve asked them all to cool it,” Johnson said from the House GOP retreat in West Virginia last week. “I am vehemently opposed to member-on-member action in primaries because it’s not productive. And it causes division for obvious reasons, and we should not be engaging in that.”

“So I’m telling everyone who’s doing that to knock it off,” Johnson added. “And both sides, they’ll say, ‘Well, we didn’t start it, they started it.’”

It's not clear why Johnson is so adamant about interparty conflict. Generally, the sharp words and attacks fade away as soon as the primary is over and unity prevails, but current divisions may make that a little harder than it has been in the past.

Not listening

And anyway, the few GOP members affected by his rhetoric aren't listening. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) Has been in the thick of at least two of the fiercest primary battles this year against incumbents Reps. Mike Bost of Illinois and Tony Gonzales of Texas.

“I would love nothing more than to just go after Democrats,” Gaetz, who was the driving force behind the ouster of fomrer Speaker Kevin McCarthy, said. “But if Republicans are going to dress up like Democrats in drag, I’m going to go after them too. Because at the end of the day, we’re not judged by how many Republicans we have in Congress. We’re judged on whether or not we save the country.”

The feuding is especially problemmatic because Republicans currently only have a two-seat majority after McCarthy and Rep. Ken Buck (CO) unexpectedly stepped down from their seats before their terms ended and George Santos was expelled for unethical behavior, only to be replaced by a Democrat.

If partisan battles lead to more flipped seats, the House could easily go Democrat for next year, causing more headaches for Republicans hoping to flip the Senate.

Partnering with Trump

Besides addressing Republicans himself, Johnson has enlisted presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump to endorse particular candidates and put pressure on others to drop out of their races.

He has managed to get Trump's endorsement for Bost and controversial Ohio J.R. Majewski dropped out March 2 seemingly after talking to Trump's campaign.

It's a good move for Johnson to elicit a partnership with Trump, who is the de facto head of the party even though his nomination hasn't been made official yet.

It's a way of pulling rank on members like Gaetz, who supports Trump strongly and is more likely to fall in line if Trump encourages him to do so.

While primarying incumbents is always an uphill climb, it's important not to do undue damage to the eventual winner, which could cost Republicans the seat.

Some of the feuding is undoubtedly unnecessary, but some of it is just how the game goes and will pass away when a candidate emerges.

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