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Will the GOP’s House speaker battle matter in 2024?

Three-week leadership fight was a self-inflicted wound for GOP

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 the third failed vote to elect a new speaker of the House on Oct. 20.
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 the third failed vote to elect a new speaker of the House on Oct. 20. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Three weeks have passed since eight House Republicans dethroned Speaker Kevin McCarthy, yet there are still two valid questions: How’d we get here? And will it matter in 2024? 

This will come as a surprise, but there seems to be a disconnect between what some House members say and how they act. 

“I think everyone is approaching this pragmatically and realizing, again, there’s gonna be some compromise, some give and take, because it takes 218,” Virginia Rep. Bob Good told CBN News the day after the McCarthy ouster, citing the number of votes needed to elect a speaker if everyone is present and votes for someone. 

Good, who was one of the eight Republicans to support the move to declare the speaker’s office vacant, went on to describe the attributes of McCarthy’s potential successor.  

“[I] think it’ll be someone who has, is gonna require somebody who has widespread respect and stature and influence within the conference to get to that 218,” Good said, without a sense of irony that he helped oust a speaker who had the widespread support of 96 percent of the House Republican Conference.

Good and others have an alternative definition of compromise. To many members on Capitol Hill, the word doesn’t mean each side concedes something they want to find a middle-ground alternative. Increasingly, those who refuse to make concessions call the resulting one-sided deal a compromise. 

There’s also a temptation for members, elected to represent less than one quarter of 1 percent of the country, to require the rest of the country bow to the needs and beliefs of the constituents (or in some cases, primary voters) in their congressional district. If everyone adopts that mentality, then there won’t be any significant agreement based on the political and geographic diversity of the country. 

Republicans also have shifting standards for their party leaders. 

When Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota emerged as the party’s speaker nominee, one of his GOP colleagues called him “one of the most moderate members of the entire Republican conference.” It was not a compliment. 

Emmer has voted with the Republican Party an average of 94 percent of the time in each of his eight full years in Congress, according to CQ’s party unity score, which measures votes where majorities of each party are on opposite sides. In 2022, the average House Republican voted with the GOP 91 percent of the time. Objections are more likely to be specific rather than an examination of a total record.

Another GOP member said Emmer needed to “get right with Jesus” due to his stance on same-sex marriage. It was an interesting comment because marriage hadn’t come up as a litmus test in the previous two-and-half weeks of infighting over the speaker’s gavel. And because of the fact that the leader and most popular individual within the Republican Party, former President Donald Trump, has never focused on same-sex marriage and said as far back as 2016 that he was fine with it

Purity on same-sex marriage didn’t stop one GOP congressman from promoting Trump as a transitional speaker. Although, Republicans would likely have to change their own conference rules to permit someone under felony indictment to hold a leadership position. 

Election impact

Will the Republican dysfunction on Capitol Hill in the fall of 2023 matter in November 2024? 

The short answer is, maybe, and indirectly. 

At a minimum, the effort to oust and find a new speaker was a giant distraction. Fundamentally, Republicans should want this election to be a referendum on an unpopular incumbent president. But instead of talking about the state of the country, the economy, or the world under President Joe Biden, most of the headlines have been about Republicans’ inability to pick their own leader. The speaker election has been a distraction from Republicans’ own impeachment inquiry into Biden.  

Even though Democrats are excited about Republicans potentially handing the reins to a member who declined to certify the 2020 election and is in favor of a national abortion ban, it will be difficult to demonize Speaker Mike Johnson due his obscurity and generic sounding name. Democrats will have to introduce and define him to voters. 

If Johnson leads the party in a decisively conservative direction, then GOP members in competitive districts could be more vulnerable because of potential votes and the party brand. There’s a risk to empowering someone with limited leadership experience. Someone with more experience might better understand the challenges of his more vulnerable colleagues and navigate around potential legislative pitfalls that could harm their campaigns.

In the short term, a November government shutdown would be more easily pinned on Republicans due to their decision to oust a speaker for going along with a seven-week short-term budget and then spending three of those weeks trying to find his replacement. If Republican infighting further delays aid to Israel, the party could see political consequences as well. 

Longer term, if Republicans can’t exhibit a minimal ability to govern, then they risk voters declining to give them more power. In 2022, independent voters were primed for change, and a red wave appeared likely. Ultimately, however, they chose to stick with the status quo in many cases because they didn’t find Republicans to be acceptable alternatives to the Democrats in charge.

It might be easy to dismiss what happens now as irrelevant in the 2024 elections, but it seems likely Republicans on Capitol Hill will go through at least one more intraparty fight in the next 12 months. And that will help define the party in voters’ minds.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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