Republicans are bracing for a Democratic wave come November, and although the party is eager to show a unified front, the stakes are not equal for its factions.
The House Republican Conference is expected to look much different next year, and if current projections hold, much smaller. That could mean wildly different things for conservatives and GOP moderates when it comes to the business of governing.
Even as Republicans are projected to lose seats, the House Freedom Caucus is expected to stay relatively similar in size. That means it will be larger as a percentage of the whole conference, and as a result, more influential—if Republicans hold the House, even by a few seats.
If Republicans lose the House, as many prognosticators have begun to expect, the Freedom Caucus will become largely irrelevant legislatively, while wielding a larger stick when it comes to internal party politics, a dynamic the group’s chairman acknowledged.
“We form a close-knit group that can obviously vote as a bloc,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “If we’re not in the majority, we lose leverage. But with a slight majority and a larger number in the Freedom Caucus, it certainly would increase the leverage we have.”
With their current 238 House members, Republican leaders can withstand a revolt from many Freedom Caucus members on any given legislation, though not one from the entire 30-or-so-strong caucus. In a majority of only, say, five seats, every piece of legislation would have to be Freedom Caucus-approved to pass without Democratic support.
Most Freedom Caucus members are expected to cruise to victory in November because they represent heavily Republican districts. Still, according to The Cook Political Report, the group could sustain some losses.
Rep. Rod Blum is facing a toss-up race in Iowa and Rep. Dave Brat runs the risk of losing in his Virginia district, which leans Republican. Reps. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Tom Garrett of Virginia are likely to hold on to their seats, but each has a tough reelection battle ahead.
Still, any losses would likely be defrayed by Caucus gains among candidates who have been endorsed by the House Freedom Fund, the caucus’s political action committee. Candidates Mark Green and Debbie Lesko are shoo-ins in their respective Tennessee and Arizona districts. Meanwhile, Chip Roy has a good shot at winning a Republican runoff in Texas in May, and Rick Saccone, though he lost a recent bellwether race in Pennsylvania, may well prevail in a new, more GOP-friendly Keystone State district.
On the other side of that coin is the Tuesday Group and the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership. Already, 10 members from the group have announced resignation or retirement, with some of those running for higher office. But, more pivotally, the path to a Democratic House majority runs through those districts currently held by moderate Republicans.
Four seats being vacated by Main Street members are trending Democratic, including the Pennsylvania seat held by Rep. Ryan Costello, who surprisingly announced his retirement after only two terms last week. Another three held by retiring moderate members are considered toss-up seats, according to the Cook Report.
More alarming for the moderate wing of the party, another 11 seats currently held by moderate members are toss-ups, while scores more lean Republican but could start trending more Democratic as the election nears.
Many of those districts were won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and with Democrats leading in the enthusiasm gap and in the generic ballot, there is a reasonable chance they will win a majority of those races.
Still, if House Republicans are able to maintain a small majority, it will more than likely be because these candidates held the tide against the blue wave by proving again that they can win in Democratic-leaning districts, said Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.
In that case, Chamberlain said, it may be reasonable to expect leadership to show deference to those members who helped them keep the majority and work with them.
“You can’t get to 218 votes without Main Street members, without having the men and women that are the majority-makers at the table,” she said. “A lot of times, House Freedom Caucus members will walk on legislation. We won’t.”
Continuing to work against the Main Street Partnership’s leverage, however, is the fact that it rarely votes as a bloc like the Freedom Caucus does. In a slight majority, leaders would have to work with the Freedom Caucus as a whole, while they could attract moderate votes one by one, or state delegation by state delegation.
Doug Heye, a former House leadership staffer, called this dynamic the “pendulum politics” of the House, where any tweak to legislation makes the expected vote tally on any bill swing back and forth between the moderate and conservative wings of the party. He also suggested that a slight GOP majority could embolden what he calls the “fight caucus.”
“The urge to fight is seen as more paramount than delivering results,” he said. “This is where leadership needs to see a more robust effort from the White House to lead Congress legislatively. A hands-off approach only leads to problem factions being more problematic.”
Of course, if the slight majority is held by Democrats rather than Republicans, moderates become pivotal. While the Freedom Caucus would be cast aside by any Democratic leadership team, GOP moderates could be expected to vote for some Democratic legislation if the progressive wing balks.