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Why Has the Right Already Won the House Speakership?

Republicans look ready to continue the hard-edged tactics that most swing state voters rejected in last November’s midterm election, regardless of Tuesday’s House speaker vote. Conservative opposition to House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy might lead to the first multi-ballot speakership race since 1923 and the second since the Civil War.

Even if McCarthy wins, the GOP’s conservative vanguard has gained considerable influence over the party’s legislative and investigative agenda. That might encourage the extremism that damaged Republicans in the midterm election, notably in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona, crucial swing states that could decide the next presidential election.

Former GOP Rep. Charlie Dent, a CNN political contributor, said the Republican speaker “will be subject to the whims and the never-ending leveraging of a small minority who want to hold power.” “This faction on the far right will continue to urge the leadership to go further right on issues.”

Tuesday’s vote may revive 19th-century House drama. According to the House historian, the House failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot 13 times before the Civil War, when party allegiances were more fluid. The decade before the Civil War was the hardest, as the party structure collapsed under the pressure of the North-South battle and the Republican Party replaced the Whigs as the main rival to the Democrats, then the dominant party.

One speakership election in that chaotic decade took 133 ballots and two months to resolve; the final speaker selection before the Civil War took 44 ballots. Since then, only in 1923 did Republicans with a slim majority like this year take nine ballots to choose their speaker. Left-leaning progressive Republicans initially opposed conservative incumbent Speaker Frederick Gillett.

McCarthy’s caucus’ hard-right conservatives have vowed to oppose him on the first ballot. Even if conservatives first reject McCarthy, many in the party establishment believe he will triumph because there is no other choice likely to draw party-wide support.

“I think he prevails because there is no other candidate with his experience and fundraising ability and at the end of the day the party base will close ranks because nothing happens until you have a Speaker: No investigations… nothing,” former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, wrote me in an email. The bulk of the Conference supports him.

Whether McCarthy wins or not, his struggle to get votes shows that whoever the GOP chooses as speaker will be on a very thin ledge and constantly threatened by an aggressive right fringe. That formula caused John Boehner and Paul Ryan to retire early.

“McCarthy is in a bad place, as was Boehner and Ryan,” Davis says. Dent believes a Speaker McCarthy would confront a much more dangerous situation than those two predecessors because “there are more of the ultra-MAGA types than there were then” and the party’s House margin “is smaller.”

McCarthy—or whoever the GOP chooses—is unlikely to discipline the party’s hardline conservative vanguard on such a short leash. He has repeatedly shown deference to the party’s conservatives. McCarthy has agreed to reinstate committee assignments for Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, who Democrats removed after they used violent imagery and rhetoric.

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McCarthy relied on Greene to win enough conservative votes to become a speaker. McCarthy has also agreed to greatly reduce the number of members needed to impeach the speaker. McCarthy also promised to aggressively investigate Republican priorities such as Hunter Biden’s financial operations and the handling of January 6, 2021, rioters.

McCarthy also agreed to conservative calls for a panel to investigate Justice Department and FBI politicization, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal said that the Judiciary Committee will create the “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.” McCarthy has also suggested impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Dent, like Davis, thinks aggressive research will yield useful information, including some that will make the Biden administration uncomfortable. Dent admits that strident hearings centered on far-right grievances and conspiracy theories could backfire on Republicans. Dent believes “tone and manner matter.” “You can find all sorts of stuff they want to jump on that… won’t play well [with the public]. The speaker will mediate these conflicts constantly.”

McCarthy’s silence has spoken volumes. He has kept mute on the issues surrounding incoming GOP Rep. George Santos of New York (who Greene has staunchly backed) and the January 6 committee’s findings that many GOP caucus members were closely involved in then-President Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election. The committee called new House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan “a significant contributor in President Trump’s efforts.”

Democrats believe these early signals guarantee that the House GOP’s most militant members will define the party for the next two years, whether McCarthy wins the speakership or conservatives (in a less likely scenario) install an alternative to his right.

“In some ways, win or loss [for McCarthy] it doesn’t matter,” says Leslie Dach, a senior consultant to the Democratic-aligned Congressional Integrity Project, which will respond to House investigations of the Biden administration. “Giving these guys power and the podium has sealed the next two years.”

Dach and other Democrats believe the House majority will reinforce the GOP’s image as the party of Trump just as party strategists, donors, and elected officials are urging Republicans to move beyond him by making hardline Trump allies like Jordan and Greene highly visible and allowing them to pursue conservative grievances like the charge that the FBI has become “weaponized” against the right.

Dach believes “empowered, radical MAGA types” will steal the show. “Every day they are on a committee or on television is a horrible day for the Republican Party.” McCarthy’s early rightward leanings reflect his caucus’ power structure.

The majority of House Republicans represent “Trump country”—districts outside of major metropolitan regions where the former president ran strongly in 2020. 170 House Republicans—three-fourths—represent seats Trump won by at least 10 percentage points two years ago.

McCarthy is creating trouble for the 18 House Republicans who won districts that went for Biden in 2020 by adopting their combative and culture war politics. More than half are in New York and California, where Democratic turnout in 2024 will likely be higher than in 2022.

McCarthy (or whoever becomes speaker) is also ignoring the right’s agenda’s strong pushback in the most closely contested swing states last November. In November, Democrats defeated every Trump-aligned gubernatorial and US Senate candidate in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the five states that decided the 2020 election. (Only incumbent Republicans Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson won such fights.)

Former AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer says the GOP has lost huge ground in those states since Trump took office. “When he delivered his inauguration speech [in 2017], there was only one Democratic governor in those five states, only four Democratic Senators, no speaker of the state assembly or majority leader in those states,” said Podhorzer, chairman of the Analyst Institute, a liberal organization.

“In a month, four of the five states will have Democratic governors, 9 of the 10 Senators are Democrats, and three state legislative chambers are dominated by Democrats.” He says Democrats “have done nothing but win because those states are not going to elect MAGA” Republicans since 2016.

In a recent analysis, Podhorzer found that the midterm election showed resistance to Trump-style politics in several contested states. Podhorzer found that Democrats matched or exceeded their 2020 majorities in crucial House, Senate, and gubernatorial races in the 15 states with the most competitive statewide campaigns including candidates clearly identified with a Trump-style platform. The party lost in other states as usual during midterms.

“It was two midterms happening at the same time—depending on whether you were in a place where that new bubble of Democratic voters believed they had to turn out to beat MAGA again,” Podhorzer said. The GOP leadership contest that will conclude Tuesday essentially guarantees that the House will spend two years magnifying Trump-style politics that produced that divided result.

That won’t hurt Republicans in strongholds. As I’ve written, Republicans solidified their power over red-leaning America in the midterm, handily winning governorships and state legislatures in many of the states (including Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Tennessee) that pursued the most aggressive conservative agendas during the past two years.

But the major position for the right in the upcoming Republican House risks further connecting the party with the politics that repulsed so many voters across the crucial swing states the GOP must retake to recapture the White House in two years. If McCarthy wins the speakership by unleashing his caucus’ most radical voices, the GOP’s victory may be short-lived.

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