Are House Republicans Voter-Proof?

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As Washington careens toward fiscal Armageddon this fall, the basic strategic question is: How crazy can the Republican House be before risking their majority? The party’s ability to foment crisis through another debt ceiling hostage crisis or government shutdown is its policy leverage over President Obama. The only limiting factor on its use of that leverage is the risk that voters would throw the party out in 2014.

This summer, conservatives have amped up their plans for hostage drama confrontations with the Obama administration, forcing party leaders to contemplate whether the party risks approaching that invisible barrier. House Republican Tom Cole warns:

"The only way Republicans will lose the House is to shut down the government or default on the debt … I’m not inclined to jeopardize the crown jewel," Cole added, "and the House of Representatives is the crown jewel in this election cycle."

Apparently other Republicans are thinking along the same lines, as party leaders have pushed back against the wildest Republican confrontation plans. But are they right to worry about a backlash?

The basic lay of the land is that Republicans have plenty of cushion to act crazy — say, at least Michele Bachmann–crazy, and possibly Charles Manson–crazy.

STF/AFP

Some factors working in their favor:

  1. The party that doesn’t control the White House historically tends to gain seats in midterm elections.
  2. In recent years, Democrats have increasingly grown dependent on young and minority voters, who tend to turn out only for presidential elections, giving the GOP a structural midterm advantage.
  3. Partisanship seems to be growing generally more entrenched, which means there are fewer swing voters and fewer swing districts.
  4. Republicans also enjoy an embedded advantage on how they are distributed — more Democrats live in extremely Democratic urban areas, packing their voters in to a minimum number of districts, and effectively wasting their votes.
  5. In 2010, Republicans won a huge midterm victory that coincided with a census, and used their gains to rewrite district maps so as to lock in their gains. The resulting House map gives the party a commanding edge — the basic figure is that Democrats would need to win the national vote by about seven points in order to take back the House.

The last point is underappreciated. Glenn Thrush had a great report on Friday about how Republicans invested in state legislative races in 2010 to lock in their House map. State legislative races are cheap, low-profile affairs, and it's precisely for that reason that spending money on them really pays off. Changing somebody’s mind about Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney is hard. Changing their mind about their state House representative — do you even know who yours is? — is relatively easy. The GOP outspent the Democrats three to one on state legislative races, in what may have been the biggest political blunder of Obama's presidency. The GOP used its control to write a map that makes the prospect of their party losing control of the House nearly impossible until the next census, in 2020.

Now, "nearly impossible" and "impossible" are not the same thing. But the hill is extraordinarily steep. Most people view politics through the lens of the president. Wave elections happen either in support of (or, more frequently, in opposition to) the occupant of the Oval Office. A large chunk of voters consistently fails to even know which party controls of the House, let alone have any deep familiarity with its policies.

So the scenario where Republicans lose the House requires them to be so irresponsible and dangerous that their behavior breaks through all the established patterns. People would have to get mad not at "Washington," or even "Congress," but Republicans in the House. I can’t think of a time in history when a Congressional party, not connected to a president, made itself radioactive like that.

To be sure, there has never in modern history been a congressional party as insane as the current Congressional GOP. But to expect that its craziness could have political consequences is to imagine a political reaction that would be completely novel.