When the Census Bureau announced on Monday that West Virginia would lose one of its three seats in the U.S. House, Rep. Alex Mooney was prepared.
The Republican lawmaker, who has represented central West Virginia for six years, has quietly stockpiled campaign cash while easily dispatching Democratic challengers in this deep red district. He entered 2021 with over $2.7 million in the bank for his campaign, an enormous total for a low-key lawmaker in a safe seat.
Call it a rainy day fund for one of the most dreaded kinds of political bad luck that can befall a member of Congress.
Every 10 years, when congressional lines are redrawn based on population data from the latest Census, a lawmaker is inevitably placed in a colleague’s district. Those situations can produce the most brutal kind of election contest there is: incumbent versus incumbent. Even the prospect of such a fight has spurred many a member to instead retire early, having found themselves the loser in a game of political musical chairs.
Come January 2023, Mooney, apparently, does not want to be the West Virginia member of Congress out of a job. His fellow delegation Republicans—and possible rivals in the not-too-distant future—have campaign war chests a fraction of the size. Rep. Carol Miller, who represents the state’s south, has just $66,000 on hand.
Before the Census Bureau’s announcement, Mooney, Miller, and Rep. David McKinley signed a joint statement saying that “at this time, we all plan to seek re-election to Congress” and that they will consider the situation again when the state legislature redraws the map in the fall.
But the general rule with these incumbent cage matches, say operatives, is that those who start behind stay behind.
“These sorts of things are knife fights in a phone booth,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who previously worked at the party’s House campaign arm. “You need to move quickly and ruthlessly.”
West Virginia will hardly be the only stage for such maneuvering. Six other states will lose a congressional seat, and if the past is any guide, even those representing states that didn’t lose a seat are far from safe.
These contests inspire high drama and, often, a unique shock factor. Democrats still talk about the bitter 2012 race between Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, two ideologically similar Los Angeles Democrats, which ended up costing over $15 million. Near the end of the campaign, it even got physical after Sherman, then 58 years old, tried to put Berman, then 71, in a headlock during a debate. Sherman won, and remains in office.
In 2022, the stakes for such brutal party civil wars are even higher, because control of the House rests on a razor’s edge. In the last round of redistricting, the GOP held a commanding 50-seat majority; now, Democrats hold a six-seat majority. Every seat will matter, as will every dollar, so leaders in both parties will likely want to head off any potentially wasteful primaries that do not impact the path to the majority.
“It’s not like anyone is in jeopardy of losing a seat because of a member-on-member primary,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked at the party’s House campaign arm during the 2012 redistricting cycle. “But member-on-member primaries will take up eyeballs, oxygen, and donor interest and divert it away from the competitive races in the fall, where it’s sorely needed.”
At this stage, the Census Bureau has only released top-line population figures, so it’s difficult to pinpoint which exact districts could be on the chopping block in the six other states which will lose a seat beyond West Virginia, whose small size makes for a more zero-sum situation. After the last round of redistricting in 2012, there were 10 incumbent-versus-incumbent battles.
In Illinois, for example, there’s speculation among party operatives that a GOP-held seat in the state’s more rural south will be axed, or potentially a Democratic-held seat in the suburbs and exurbs of Chicago. In New York, the focus is on red and purple upstate areas with declining population, and in Ohio, buzz on a district loss is centered on the old industrial heart of the state’s northeast. The region’s current representative, Democrat Tim Ryan, launched a U.S. Senate bid on Monday.
There are also states where the party in control of government is seen as likely to put two members of the opposite party together to consolidate an advantage. Georgia is not losing a seat, but observers believe Republicans could pit two Democrats, Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, in one district that spans the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Both have raised over $600,000 in the first three months of the year.
Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked on post-redistricting races, said many lawmakers are quietly preparing for these possibilities, knowing that in safe seats their dilemmas won’t land on the radar of party committees that are solely focused on the majority. “That’s why they’ve got to raise the money now, and prepare for the worst,” Trippi said.
Party leaders are usually neutral in such races, at least publicly, though there are exceptions. In 2012, Eric Cantor, then the GOP’s second-ranking House leader, cut a $25,000 check to support Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who went on to defeat a fellow GOP incumbent in a primary.
Insiders say that on the Democratic side, leaders like President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi might quietly work to preempt bruising battles. “The president could play a useful role in avoiding those kinds of primary fights,” said a former lawmaker who lost their seat in a past round of redistricting, speaking anonymously to discuss dynamics candidly. “She may be the one going to Biden to say, we can avoid a $10 million primary for a seat that’s going to be Democratic."
A less gentle touch is likely to be at work on the GOP side. Former President Donald Trump remains the de facto party leader and its most coveted endorsement, and he is hardly shy about blowing up internal party politics, especially as he wages war against those Republicans he deems insufficiently loyal to him.
But these races have always been nasty, no matter the party or political atmosphere. In 2012, two Arizona Republicans, Rep. David Schweikert and then-Rep. Ben Quayle, the son of the former vice president, competed in a race that featured allegations that Schweikert traded in innuendo about Quayle’s sexual orientation. Schweikert won.
“These primaries lead to long-term animus on both sides because they’re running in a seat they think is theirs,” said Ferguson. “And they're running against someone who they thought was their friend. So it adds a personal touch to the contest.”
Monday’s 2020 Census announcement did take some potentially tough primaries off the table. Rhode Island held onto its two House seats, sparing Democratic Reps. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin from a possible head-to-head. Cicilline had banked over $1.1 million for his campaign as of mid-April. And Minnesota will not see a brawl among any of the four Republicans representing districts outside the Twin Cities, a possibility that was brewing before the Census Bureau announced the state would keep all eight of its House seats.
For now, West Virginia’s three GOP representatives can begin plotting for possible primaries. But the dozens of members elsewhere are stuck playing the waiting game as their states governments begin the redistricting process.
Rep. Peter Meijer, a freshman Republican, has over $500,000 banked for his re-election in his west Michigan district, which leans to the right. A nonpartisan commission in Lansing will decide what that district will look like—or if it exists at all—after dropping Michigan from 14 districts to 13.
“I'm optimistic,” said Meijer, “that they'll be ensuring that we have maps that are reflective of communities of interest.”
—with reporting from Matt Fuller