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Time for House Republicans to jump off the hamster wheel

GOP's 'strong individuals' have created an unprecedented stalemate

(From left) Reps. Eli Crane, R-Ariz., Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., Bob Good, R-Va., Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., sit together during a speaker vote on the House floor on Friday.
(From left) Reps. Eli Crane, R-Ariz., Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., Bob Good, R-Va., Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., sit together during a speaker vote on the House floor on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“When a lot of people, unfortunately, were voting, to have a 270, 280 Republican House, I was praying each evening for a small majority, because I recognize that that small [of a] majority was the only way that we were going to advance a conservative agenda,” Rep. Matt Rosendale told a group of donors in 2022.

But the Montana Republican wasn’t finished. He added: “If it was the right majority, that if we had six or seven very strong individuals, we would drag the conference over to the right.”

Well, Rosendale got his wish. Republicans underperformed in the 2022 midterms, and the stalemate that he and seven other “strong individuals” who voted to oust Kevin McCarthy has landed us in a stalemate.

House Republicans at one point Tuesday had chosen Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., as their latest nominee for speaker of the House. Four hours later, after enough of his colleagues refused to support his nomination on the House floor, followed by a harsh tweet by former President Donald Trump, Emmer walked away.

Yes, it’s Groundhog Day in the Capitol.

One more time, a group of Republicans, a small minority of the majority, guaranteed another embarrassing defeat for Republicans but for the holdouts, plenty of media attention and more campaign dollars.

The House GOP conference will no doubt keep trying to find a candidate acceptable to the hard-right insurgents, the conservative pragmatists and members elected in crucial swing districts that President Joe Biden won in 2020. Will Republicans finally find a way to hop off the hamster wheel they have been on for the last three weeks, take a win and get back to the people’s business? One can only hope.

Sadly, winning the majority of the Republican conference doesn’t seem to really matter anymore. Instead, thanks to a handful of members, Republicans now have to operate in a culture where the majority is secondary to the minority. It began with the ousting of McCarthy, R-Calif., who garnered the support of 96 percent of the Republican conference. Looking back, that seems like an astounding accomplishment that should have kept him in the speaker’s chair.

But getting the support of all but eight of his GOP colleagues did him little good. The die was cast by Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz’s reckless motion to vacate, which empowered the slimmest minority not to elect a speaker but only to remove one who had been duly elected.

Apparently, there was no “Plan B.”

Meanwhile, Democrats, whose votes, along with the eight Republicans, kept McCarthy from his rightful post, reveled in the ensuing chaos despite the ticking clock on toward expiration of a continuing resolution on Nov. 17 and the worsening crisis in the Middle East.

What’s followed has been an affirmation of the idea that the minority gets to overrule the majority whether in the conference or on the House floor. One can only ask whether minority rule is the new normal that applies to the election of a speaker. The same might go for any Republican idea, for that matter, that the minority — no matter how small — disagrees with.

The tyranny of the minority did in McCarthy. Majority Leader Steve Scalise was the next victim and didn’t even try for a floor vote to become speaker. Things have spiraled from there.

I have worked for and with most Republican speakers since my time on the Hill with former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. I have to honestly say this is a level of dysfunction I have never seen. And it’s beginning to take a toll on the prospects for Republicans to maintain their majority coalition next year.

In the latest “Winning the Issues” survey, conducted just last week (Oct. 18-19), the favorable-unfavorable of Republicans in Congress was a lopsided 34 percent favorable to 60 percent unfavorable. With independents, their favorable/unfavorable was 23 percent to 68 percent. For context, voters’ negative perception of Republicans was roughly the same in June 2018, 35 percent favorable to 61 percent unfavorable, just months before they lost the majority.

Republicans’ advantage on handling the economy has also slipped over the past month, going from plus-14 percentage points over Democrats in September to plus-10 points in the October version of the survey. Still a good number, but heading in the wrong direction.

Yet, before Democrats get too excited, they aren’t doing much better with independents, who give them a 29 percent to 61 percent favorable-unfavorable rating. Independents aren’t happy with either party and their swing votes will choose the next House majority.

In the last election, 17 percent of voters were liberal Democrats; 25 percent were conservative Republicans and 58 percent were something other than part of the two parties’ bases. Neither party can even come close to winning an outright majority with only their base.

For House leaders in both parties, managing the dynamic between members from base districts and those in swing districts who create the majority coalition, is a big challenge.

For both the Republican and Democratic House conferences, members from base districts may elect conference leaders, but members from swing districts give conferences the ability to elect someone to the speakership. In other words, only by keeping swing districts red can Republicans hope to keep the House.

Most members on both sides never have to worry about the general election, only fearing a primary battle. That’s certainly the case with most of the Republican members who have upended the conference, which has always operated in a culture of having the majority elect their leadership. Interestingly, none of the 18 Republican members hailing from districts Biden won are part of that group.

But when efforts are made to find a balance that acknowledges the views of both safe-seat members and those in swing districts, critics pounce by calling leaders and targeted members RINOs, swamp creatures or establishment tools.

This dilemma is playing out in real time for House Republicans and now the situation has been made immeasurably worse by the interference of outsiders in the process. There’s nothing wrong with nonmember groups and individuals weighing in with their choice for speaker. But when expressing a preference becomes bullying and threats, they go too far.

The choice of speaker is a decision for the Republican conference, not for operatives and candidates with their own agendas.

No matter what happened last night, we’ve learned that even overwhelming support gets you nowhere on the House floor if a few “strong individuals” switch sides and vote with the Democrats. That strategy is a siren’s song that will only lead House Republicans back to the minority.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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