Welcome to American politics, where election season never really ends. By the time one election is close, the next year’s campaign is well underway.
The battle for the soul of the House GOP is no exception. Republicans in the House of Representatives have been having it out internally since the day they took the speakership in 2011 after the 2010 Republican midterm gains.
What makes this fight particularly interesting is that, unlike presidential nominations or the RNC, it gives us an insight into the Republican Party’s ability to govern. The speakership of the House of Representatives is the third highest office in the nation, and wields tremendous influence over national policy and spending, regardless of who is in the White House. It’s not just about what the GOP wants to do in theory, it tells us how they do govern in practice.
That said, North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows’ recent announcement that he is seeking the most influential conservative position in the House is not too surprising.
As a member of the Freedom Caucus, he clarified he will support founder Jim Jordan should Jordan decide to stay on for another term. But as the founder shifts his focus to other causes, Meadows sees a path to becoming the voice of conservatism on Capitol Hill.
The internal Freedom Caucus election will take place next month, shortly after the House GOP chooses its leadership for the One Hundred-Fifteenth Congress. Like any good libertarian, I’ll be watching for who leads the Freedom Caucus.
But far more importantly, I’ll be watching for what dynamics will be at play in the House GOP. Because, let’s face it, the political environment in which politicians live or die matters so much more than any one individual acting in that environment.
That’s why I’d like to point out three basic rules for legislators who want to make a difference:
First, legislative caucuses by nature lean farther to their ideological base than national party organizations or presidential nominations.
Let’s look at national party organizations, like the RNC. The RNC is made up of party bigwigs from all fifty states. Every state GOP is entitled to two committee members, and the state Republican chair is entitled to sit on the RNC ex officio (which is nerd speak for “by virtue of holding office”). Three from Texas. Three from New York. Three from Wyoming. Three from Rhode Island. Can you imagine why the RNC finds itself closer to the middle than you, the conservative primary voter, would prefer?
Let’s look at presidential nominations while we’re at it. The formula is a tad more complicated, but the principle is the same. Party members from all fifty states and the territories choose delegates to the national convention, regardless of how they will vote in the general. (Yes, some weight is given to Republican turnout in allocating delegates, but still far short of mirroring the importance of the general election, which would be blue states elect none, red states elect some, and swing states elect most of all.)
By contrast, look at the makeup of a party caucus in a legislative body. Blue districts have no seats in the Republican Caucus, therefore they do not count. Swing districts have some seats in the Republican Caucus, though they are statistically less likely to have been there long enough to gain seniority. Red districts hold the vast majority of the seats simply because that is where Republican legislators come from.
Second, decreased majorities cause legislatures to lean even farther toward their base.
With the first rule in mind, consider how it looks going from a large majority to a narrow majority. Paul Ryan can afford to lose up to 28 Representatives and still remain Speaker. By definition, all of those losses happen in vulnerable districts, so the House Republican Caucus becomes more red per capita. The Freedom Caucus becomes a larger percentage of the ruling party, and we see a hard right swing in the way decisions are made.
Third, being in opposition makes them lean farthest of all.
Nothing stirs up a reaction like something to react against. Having Hillary Clinton in the White House will give plenty of state and local grassroots organizations and conservative crusaders in Congress a fresh wedge issue. Everything she does will be a reason to push back, raise money, and use the money to push back even harder.
With all that said, I don’t think organizations like the House Freedom Caucus will lack any opportunity to influence the House, or to influence national politics. And I certainly hope they don’t let that go to waste.