April 13, 2024

One of Kevin McCarthy’s first acts as speaker of the House was to take a selfie with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right conspiracy theorist and election denier who has emerged as one of his staunchest allies.

That image, which Greene immediately posted on social media, encapsulates the wager McCarthy has placed for the entire House Republican Conference – and indeed for the GOP overall.

To secure the speakership, McCarthy did what his two Republican predecessors in the job, Paul Ryan and John Boehner, would not: grant concessions to the House GOP’s most militant conservative faction that will vastly increase their visibility and leverage in shaping the party’s agenda.

With that decision, McCarthy is betting that the GOP can maintain broad enough electoral support to defend its House majority even while moving to center firebrand conservative representatives such as Greene, Jim Jordan and Scott Perry – all of whom the January 6 committee singled out for their roles in Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Almost universally Democrats believe McCarthy will lose that bet. They believe his concessions to the GOP’s most militant conservatives will compound the problems Republicans faced last November when the party suffered unexpectedly broad losses in swing states and Congressional districts in part because too many voters, especially independents, viewed the party as extreme.

“To win back the Independents they lost in 2022, Republicans should be embracing bipartisanship and compromise, but instead they are doubling down on the extremism that prevented them from achieving a red wave,” says Democratic pollster Matt Hogan.

Conservative activists cheering the outcome of the speaker fight insist that a more consistently right-leaning agenda will produce more electoral victories for the GOP by inspiring more conservative voters to the polls – the way Donald Trump won in 2016.

“The politics of America is turning out a base,” said long-time conservative strategist Kenneth Blackwell, chair of the influential Conservative Action Project. “It is no longer being decided by 20% of independent voters. So your base matters, your platform matters.”

But the disappointing results for the GOP over the past three elections – particularly in the key swing states likely to decide the presidency next year – point to the risk that even elevated conservative turnout can be swamped by offsetting mobilization among left of center voters and resistance from swing voters less firmly anchored in either party.

“There was a vote in ’18 against this ideology and a vote in ‘20 against this ideology and a vote in ‘22 against this ideology,” said Democratic strategist Dan Sena, former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “And now McCarthy is just giving them a larger seat at the table.”

That larger seat includes a broad array of concessions that will strengthen the right. Among other things, McCarthy has reportedly promised the hold-out conservatives they will receive more representation on key committees (including the pivotal Rules Committee that decides which bills reach the floor); that he will oppose raising the federal debt ceiling without demanding spending cuts; that leadership will not intervene in primaries in “safe” GOP districts to support moderate candidates; that any single member can introduce a resolution to oust the speaker; and that he will establish a special committee to examine the alleged “weaponization” of federal law enforcement against American citizens, which will likely become a forum for airing GOP grievances that the FBI and Justice Department are targeting conservatives.

Blackwell led a coalition of conservatives that initially opposed McCarthy’s selection as speaker. But he said the group was surprised and encouraged by how much the hardliners achieved in the negotiations. “We saw movement in the final analysis, the structure of the new leadership, the ability of policies to be amply considered and dealt with a timely fashion,” Blackwell, also a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, said. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.”

To critics in both parties, McCarthy’s acceptance of the right’s demands shows him placing his personal ambition for the speakership over the institutional interests of the GOP in setting a course that can sustain its majority. “Neither Boehner nor Ryan would have made these kinds of concessions,” said former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, a CNN contributor. “Is surrendering your way to victory really winning?”

Yet McCarthy’s choices reflect not only his personal calculations, nor even the internal dynamics among members inside the House Republican Conference, but more fundamentally the changing balance of power in the Republican electoral coalition itself in the Trump era.

Since Trump’s emergence as the party’s national leader, the GOP has continued to bleed support among well-educated suburban voters – many of whom traditionally backed the party for economic reasons – particularly in the swing states that now typically decide the presidency.

Instead the GOP has grown more reliant on massive turnout from non-college, non-urban and evangelical Christian voters attracted precisely to the blustery culture war, confrontational and even conspiratorial politics that McCarthy’s conservative critics have now acquired much more leverage to advance.

In that sense, McCarthy’s surrender is simply acknowledging in the House rules the shift in influence away from the party establishment toward hardline culture war populists that has been evident in party primaries since the rise of Tea Party, and especially since Trump captured the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

“We’re in the midst of an evolution within the Republican Party and the ascendant wing of the party is demanding a greater say in the way the House majority will govern,” says Ken Spain, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Much of what McCarthy conceded to his conservative critics, in fact, reflects significant currents of opinion within the GOP coalition. The committee he will establish to probe alleged “weaponization” of the federal government reflects widespread suspicions among conservatives: In one national survey released this month, two-thirds of Republicans said they had little or no confidence in the FBI and a majority said they believe it is biased against Trump.

Two-thirds or more of Republican voters in polls consistently say they believe the 2020 election was stolen, which suggests they are unlikely to blink at McCarthy offering more power to many of the House GOP’s most virulent election deniers. And for years, most Republican voters in polls have said they want leaders who will fight for their beliefs rather than seek compromise with the other side.

In post-election polling Hogan’s firm conducted with a Republican partner for AARP across the 63 most competitive Congressional districts, three-fifths of GOP voters said they wanted leaders who would stand up for their beliefs, while only about one-third said they preferred leaders who emphasized compromise, he said.

The problem for the GOP is that in that polling not only did two-thirds of Democrats say they prefer a candidate who stresses compromise, but so did about three-fifths of independents, Hogan said. Most independents join Democrats in rejecting the idea that the 2020 election was stolen as well.

And it’s far from clear independent voters will respond to a sweeping investigation of federal law enforcement – especially one conducted under the right-wing framing that the federal government has been “weaponized” against conservatives. Sena speaks for many in his party when he says the likely GOP assault on federal law enforcement will “give Democrats the opportunity to be the patriots and the adults in the room.”

All of this is unfolding after a midterm in which Republicans faced clear signs of resistance in the electorate’s center. Exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that Democrats narrowly carried independents nationwide in House balloting during the midterm.

That was extraordinary: the party holding the White House has not won independents in the national House balloting in any midterm election since at least 1982, according to the exit polls. Democrats carried independents even more comfortably in many of the key statewide races, including the governor and Senate races in Arizona and Pennsylvania, the governor races in Michigan and Wisconsin, and the Senate contests in New Hampshire and Georgia, the exit polls found. Democrats ran especially well with female and college-educated independents.

One reason for the Democratic success with independents is that they were more likely to describe Republicans than Democrats as extremists. As I wrote last year, “While the share of independents who considered Democrats extreme exceeded the share who did not by a narrow four percentage points, the gap for Republicans was 18 points. Nearly two-thirds of independents with college degrees, and exactly three-fifths of female independents, said they viewed the GOP as too extreme, considerably more than in either group that identified Democrats in that way.”

Looking across all these results, Hogan said, “In 2022, Republicans were seriously hurt by an image of being too extreme, especially on abortion and their commitment to democracy.”

In the post-election AARP polling, concerns about Republicans on both abortion and democracy, “completely erased” the GOP’s big advantage on the economy, which traditionally has been a decisive factor in elections, Hogan said.

“While Republicans won voters focused on the economy and inflation by over 30 points,” in that polling, he says, “they lost voters focused on abortion and the threat to democracy by more than 60.”

Other results from the national exit poll also show just how much concerns about the GOP’s direction offset discontent over the economy. Typically, in midterm elections, voters who describe the economy as fair or poor break heavily against the party holding the White House. But Democrats performed better than usual with those economically discontented voters.

One key reason: in the national House exit poll, over two-fifths of voters who said the economy was in bad shape also said they considered the GOP too extreme – and the vast majority of those cross-pressured voters ultimately backed Democrats, according to detailed results provided by the CNN polling unit.

Similarly, in key races such as the Arizona and Pennsylvania Senate races, and the Michigan governor’s contest, over two-fifths of voters who said the economy was weak also described the GOP nominee as too extreme, the exit poll found.

Blackwell, like many movement conservatives, brushed aside any concern that a more purist agenda from the House will limit the GOP’s electoral reach.

“Among the conservative movement organizations…we have refused to be gas lighted into believing that we are a minority party in America,” he said. “We actually think that when you look at county commissions, townships, state legislative chambers and the like that we are either equal in size if not superior in number to the opposition party.”

But the loss of the House in 2018, Trump’s defeat and the loss of the Senate in 2020, and the disappointing midterm results in 2022 leads other Republicans to the opposite conclusion: that an agenda focused predominantly on energizing conservatives can’t consistently generate national victories.

“Voters clearly sent a message to Republicans they don’t like extreme politics: That’s the message,” says Dent. “But that’s not the message I saw coming out of last week.”

For now, McCarthy’s choices have effectively settled this debate: for better or worse, he’s ensured that the party’s right flank will be more influential and visible than ever. That was clear instantly Friday night, not only in McCarthy’s photo with Greene, but also his hat-in-hand nationally televised plea for support to Rep. Matt Gaetz; a few minutes later, McCarthy chose to focus his first interaction with reporters as speaker on effusively thanking Trump.

Many of the conference’s most extreme members will be front and center in the combative hearings ahead targeting the FBI, Anthony Fauci, and likely, the Justice Department’s prosecution of the January 6 rioters. After McCarthy’s concessions it’s also much more likely that the House later this year will precipitate a government shutdown and a crisis over a possible default on the federal debt that could rattle financial markets worldwide.

“It’s undeniable that many of the more controversial members within the Republican conference will be elevated,” said Spain. “It potentially presents a challenge for Republicans in swing districts who will often find themselves at odds with a more conservative or populist policy agenda. it is going to put them in positions to make tougher votes. And votes ultimately become ads in campaigns.”

The vast majority of House Republicans represent reliably red districts where the more confrontational and ideological approach McCarthy has set in motion will generate substantial, and probably majority, support. But the party’s control of the House rests on the 18 Republicans who won districts that voted in 2020 for Biden and a roughly equal number in seats that preferred Trump only narrowly, by less than five percentage points.

Like Spain, Dent believes McCarthy’s concessions will repeatedly complicate life for the Republicans from more competitive seats. Even more troubling, he says, is that there’s no evidence the hard-liners care that much about what happens to those members. So long as the right can drive an agenda that “placates their base,” Dent said, “I don’t think they care about whether or not Republicans are in the majority.”

It’s an open question whether the steps required to satisfy that conservative base are compatible with Republicans defending their slim House majority, much less winning back the White House in 2024. The deeper problem confronting the party is that the hardliners McCarthy has now empowered may not really mind if the answer is no.

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