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Maverick Kentucky congressman has avoided fallout at home after antagonizing GOP leaders

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican Rep. Thomas Massie has made a habit of antagonizing Washington’s most powerful leaders in his own party, but so far it hasn’t eroded his support back home in his staunchly conservative Kentucky district.

Four years ago, Massie drew the wrath of then-President Donald Trump when the congressman singlehandedly caused a delay in passing a massive COVID-19 relief package. Trump called the Kentuckian a “third rate Grandstander” for his stalling tactic. The smackdown would have been a political death knell for many GOP politicians, but for Massie it was a bump in the road as he cruised to reelection that year.

This month, Massie joined a revolt against House Speaker Mike Johnson — a longshot effort overwhelmingly rejected by his colleagues. Yet Massie sounds unconcerned about any fallout from his constituents for trying to oust the GOP House leader — nicknamed “MAGA Mike Johnson” by Trump.

“It’s a lot of inside baseball and ultimately, because he’s still the speaker, I think a lot of people don’t care,” Massie said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Massie is being challenged by fellow Republicans Eric Deters and Michael McGinnis in Kentucky’s primary election Tuesday. Three days of early, in-person voting started Thursday.

The MIT-educated maverick who entered Congress in late 2012 has been a magnet for controversy.

In 2021, his family held guns while posing in front of a Christmas tree. The photo drew thousands of “likes” on social media as well as criticism for being posted days after four Michigan teens died in a shooting. That year, Massie was also fined for refusing to wear a face covering on the House floor during the COVID-19 pandemic. He quips there’s “not enough airtime” to advertise all the politically risky votes he’s cast. A group affiliated with a pro-Israel lobbying organization has attacked Massie for votes seen as anti-Israel.

And yet the libertarian stalwart has consistently won by overwhelming margins in his district, which stretches across northern Kentucky and includes a mix of rural and suburban voters.

“He is a smart and strategic campaigner, so potential challengers know he will fight hard to keep his seat. I learned that the hard way,” said Todd McMurtry, who lost to Massie in the 2020 GOP primary.

McMurtry tried to capitalize on Trump’s social media beatdown of Massie in 2020 after Massie forced Congress to return to the Capitol and vote in person on the pandemic relief package, potentially exposing his colleagues to the virus and contradicting the wishes of public health experts.

Massie was unapologetic, saying he tried to hold up what he considered to be an unconstitutional vote for a wasteful bill. He deflected Trump’s jabs by joking he was at least “second rate” as a grandstander. But at the time, Massie worried the fallout from his action would be politically fatal.

“I called my two most senior staffers before I did it and said, ‘Are you OK with losing your jobs? Because this almost certainly is the end of me in Congress,’” Massie recalled this week. “And they told me, ‘We don’t want to work for you if you don’t do this.’”

Instead of withering away from the attack, Massie showed his staying power, winning the 2020 GOP primary by a lopsided margin. Two years later, Massie was back in Trump’s good graces, winning the former president’s endorsement on his way to another reelection victory.

Reflecting on his back-and-forth relationship with Trump, Massie said Wednesday that the former president is “beloved” by Republicans in his district. But he said his constituents also “appreciate somebody who will come up here and vote the way he believes is best, even if it’s at odds with Trump sometimes. So that’s sort of my brand at this point. It’s baked in.”

Massie risked incurring Trump’s wrath again by backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ failed bid for the White House. Trump hasn’t given an endorsement in Massie’s primary race this year.

Deters, the congressman’s best-known challenger, has played up his steadfast support for Trump — the presumptive Republican nominee for president — in trying to make inroads against Massie. He has portrayed Massie as a “goofball” lacking accomplishments in Congress. Deters ran for governor last year, finishing fourth in the Republican primary.

McGinnis says he’s running to “fix Congress, fix the budget process, cut wasteful spending, fix the immigration system and ‘drain the swamp,’” playing up some of Trump’s themes.

No Democrat is running for the seat this year.

Massie said his district has benefited from his service on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. But he’s best known as a deficit hawk, having even custom-designed a debt clock he’s displayed on his lapel to remind people of the nation’s mounting debt. The congressman blames the rounds of COVID-19 stimulus spending for fueling high inflation pinching pocketbooks.

“This is the main problem – the spending – and it’s going to break us eventually,” he said.

Massie is seen as a potential candidate for the Senate or the governorship someday. Asked about his political future, he said: “I wouldn’t rule anything out. But my plans right now are to stay in this seat.”

McMurtry said no one has yet been able to break through with the message that Massie’s “oppositional defiant stance on things hurts Kentuckians.” But he predicted that Trump will win back the presidency in November, and that Massie’s record of crossing Trump will catch up to him.

“In two years, I expect then-President Trump will find someone he likes to fill the seat,” McMurtry said. “It takes only a Trump endorsement to win that seat. The fact that Mr. Massie endorsed Gov. DeSantis was a strategic error.”

Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press


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