No matter how Tuesday’s vote on who will be the next speaker of the House turns out, Republicans seem ready to double down on the hard-line politics that most voters in swing states rejected in the midterm elections last November.
Because conservatives won’t give up their opposition to House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, the party might have to hold the first speakership election with more than one ballot since 1923, and only the second since the Civil War. But even if McCarthy wins in the end, the conservative frontrunners of the GOP have given themselves a lot of power to shape the party’s legislative and investigative plans. And that could make Republicans look even more extreme, which hurt them in the midterm elections, especially in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona, which are likely to decide the next presidential race.
Charlie Dent, a former Republican representative, and CNN political commentator said that whoever the Republicans choose as speaker “will be subject to the whims and never-ending leveraging of a small group of members who want to have power.” “You’ll have this group on the far right that will keep pushing the leaders to take even more right-wing positions on issues.”
The vote on Tuesday could bring back a type of drama that was common in the House in the 1800s but has almost disappeared since then. Before the Civil War, when people switched parties more often, the House did not choose a speaker on the first try 13 times, according to the office of the House historian. About a decade before the Civil War, when tensions between the North and South were getting worse, the party system fell apart, and the Republican Party replaced the Whigs as the main rival to the Democrats, who were in power at the time. This was when the hardest fights happened. During that tumultuous decade, one election for speaker took 133 ballots and two months to decide. The last speaker election before the Civil War took 44 ballots.
Since then, there has only been one choice that took more than one vote. That was in 1923, when Republicans with a small majority like the one they have this year took nine votes to choose their speaker. Then, things got complicated when a small number of left-leaning progressive Republicans who were opposed to conservative Speaker Frederick Gillett at first.
Today, McCarthy faces opposition from the other side of his caucus: a group of hard-right conservatives who have promised not to vote for him, at least on the first ballot. Many people in the party establishment still think that McCarthy will win in the end, even if conservatives try to stop him at first. This is mostly because there is no other option that is likely to get more support from the party as a whole.
“I think he wins because there is no other candidate with his experience and fundraising skills, and at the end of the day, the party base will stick together because nothing happens until you have a Speaker: no investigations, nothing,” former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who was chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told me in an email. “He has the support of almost everyone in the Conference,” they said.
But even if McCarthy doesn’t win, the fact that it’s been hard for him to get the votes shows that whoever the GOP chooses as speaker will be on a very thin ledge and constantly at risk of a revolt from a hard-line conservative wing. That was the formula that led the two previous GOP speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, to leave their jobs early. Davis says that McCarthy, like Boehner and Ryan, is in a tough situation. Dent thinks McCarthy would be in an even worse position than his two predecessors because “there are more ultra-MAGA types than there were then” and the party’s majority in the House is “smaller” overall.
With such a short leash, it seems unlikely that McCarthy (or whoever else the GOP chooses) will be able to control the party’s most extreme conservatives. He has already shown respect for the party’s most conservative members in more than one way. McCarthy has said that he will put Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar back on committees, which Democrats took away from them after they used violent language and images. (Greene has become an especially important ally for McCarthy as he tries to get enough votes from conservatives to win the speakership.) McCarthy is also said to have agreed that a much smaller number of members will be needed to force a vote on getting rid of the speaker at any time.
McCarthy also promised to investigate the Biden administration in a strong way, focusing on conservative issues like Hunter Biden’s business dealings and how the rioters on January 6, 2021 were treated. The Wall Street Journal said that McCarthy has also given in to conservatives’ requests for a panel that will look into claims that the Justice Department and FBI have become too political. The panel will be called the “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government,” according to the Journal. It will be set up under the Judiciary Committee. McCarthy has also left the door open to impeachment proceedings against Alejandro Mayorkas, who is the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Dent, like Davis, thinks that a thorough investigation will lead to useful information, including some that will make the Biden administration uncomfortable. Dent admits, though, that the hearings could go badly for the Republicans if they come off as loud or focused on far-right complaints and conspiracy theories.
Dent says, “It’s how you do things and how you say them that matter.” “There are lots of things they’ll want to talk about that won’t go over well with the public.” The speaker is going to be in a position where he or she will have to keep mediating these fights.”
McCarthy’s silence has been just as telling as what he has said. He hasn’t said a word about the scandals surrounding incoming GOP Rep. George Santos of New York, whom Greene has strongly defended, or about the revelations in the final report from the January 6 committee that multiple members of the GOP caucus were deeply involved in then-President Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election. (The committee called the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan, “a key player in President Trump’s efforts.”)
Whether McCarthy wins the speakership or conservatives (in a less likely scenario) succeed in installing an alternative to his right, Democrats believe that all of these early signs show that the House GOP’s most radical members will be at the center of defining the party over the next two years.
“In some ways, it doesn’t matter if [McCarthy] wins or loses,” says Leslie Dach, a senior adviser to the Congressional Integrity Project, a group with ties to the Democrats that was set up to deal with the upcoming House investigations of the Biden administration. “I think that by giving these people power and a stage, the next two years have already been decided.”
By making sure that hardline Trump allies like Jordan and Greene will be in the spotlight and giving them permission to pursue conservative complaints like the claim that the FBI has been “weaponized” against the right, Dach and other Democrats think the House majority will strengthen the GOP’s image as the party of Trump, even though more party strategists, donors, and elected officials are saying Republicans need to move beyond him.
“These strong, extreme MAGA types are going to be the real show,” says Dach. “Every day that they are on a committee or on TV is a bad day for the Republican Party as a whole.”
McCarthy’s early signs of deference to the right were, in some ways, just a reflection of the balance of power in his caucus. In fact, the vast majority of Republicans in the House come from “Trump country,” which are districts outside of the country’s major cities where the former president did well in the 2020 election. About three-quarters of the Republicans in the House hold seats that Trump won by at least 10 percentage points in 2016.
But by giving in to the members’ preference for confrontational and culture war politics, McCarthy is making sure that the 18 House Republicans who won districts that voted for Biden in 2020 will have trouble. More than half of those are just in New York and California, which are states where Democrats are more likely to vote in 2024 than in 2022.
McCarthy, or whoever wins the speakership, is also ignoring the clear signs of opposition to the right’s agenda that showed up in the most close-fought swing states last November. Even though many people were unhappy with the economy and how President Joe Biden was doing his job, in November, Democrats beat every Trump-backed gubernatorial and US Senate candidate in the five states that decided the 2020 election by switching from Trump to Biden: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. (The only Republicans to win in those states were the ones who were already in office, like Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.)
Michael Podhorzer, who used to be the political director of the AFL-CIO, says that since Trump took office, the GOP has lost a lot of ground in these states as a whole.
“When he gave his inauguration speech [in 2017], there was only one Democratic governor in those five states, only four Democratic senators, and no speaker of the state assembly or majority leader in the senate in those states,” says Podhorzer, who is now chairman of the board of the Analyst Institute, a group of liberal groups. “In a month, four of the five states will have Democratic governors, nine of the ten senators will be Democrats, and Democrats will be in charge of three of the state legislative chambers.” Since 2016, he says, Democrats in those places “have done nothing but win” because “MAGA” Republicans aren’t going to win there.
Looking at the election as a whole, Podhorzer came to the conclusion in a new study that the midterms showed resistance to Trump-style politics in a wide range of competitive states. Podhorzer found that in the key House, Senate, and gubernatorial races in the 15 states with the most competitive statewide contests and candidates who were clearly identified with a Trump-style agenda, Democrats mostly matched or even beat their 2020 margins. This is an impressive showing for the party in power during the first midterm election. On the other hand, the party lost in the midterm elections as usual in the other states.
“It was like there were two midterms going on at the same time,” Podhorzer said. “It depended on where you were and how many new Democratic voters thought they had to vote to beat MAGA again.” The dynamics of the GOP leadership fight, which will end on Tuesday, have made it almost certain that the House will spend the next two years boosting the Trump-style politics that led to this split result.
In places where Republicans already have a lot of power, this is not likely to cause many problems. As I’ve written, Republicans mostly kept control of red-leaning America in the midterms. They easily kept governorships and state legislatures in many of the states, like Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Tennessee, that had the most aggressive conservative agendas over the past two years.
But the right will have a big role in the new Republican House, which could make the party even more associated with the politics that turned off so many voters in the key swing states that the GOP needs to win back if it wants to win the White House in two years. If McCarthy can only become speaker by letting the most extreme people in his caucus speak out, his victory could quickly turn out to be worthless for the GOP as a whole.
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