It’ll Take More Than an Apocalypse to Unseat House Republicans

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Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

There is a morally intuitive connection between crime and punishment that is leading many people in Washington to speculate that the dysfunction of the Republican House could cost the party in the midterm elections. If House Republicans are preventing any alternative to terribly designed budget sequestration, blocking agreement on immigration reform, and threatening fiscal and economic crises in order to posture against Obamacare, the fair and rational thing would be for voters to punish them. Such ideologically diverse analysts as Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, Byron York, and Ruy Teixeira have all floated variations of this possibility.

Unfortunately, life isn’t fair or rational.

The main issue is that most voters don’t pay attention to Congress. Political scientists have found they hold the president accountable for everything, so that the in-party only really gets punished if voters are mad at the president and they’re the same party. There are exceptions, but they’re not big. The impeachment crusade led Republicans to lose five seats in the 1998 midterms, which isn’t very many.

Republicans whispering to Allen and VandeHei say that the chaos of a government shutdown could backfire against the party. But, again, a sense of scale and proportion is needed here. Republicans did shut down the government in the nineties, and it did harm their standing, but they did manage to hold the House majority for another decade. What finally lost them the House was George W. Bush.

Teixeira argues that the rising minority share of the electorate will create the constituency for a possible backlash:

It’s not well-known, but Republicans in 2010 benefited not only from relatively low minority turnout (standard for an off-year election) but also from relatively low minority support for Democratic candidates. Emphasis here is on the relative: minority support for House Democrats in 2010 was 73-25 — high, but below the 77-22 margin that minorities averaged in the three off-year elections that preceded 2010. If minorities snap back to 77-22 Democratic support as a consequence of Republican misbehavior, and the expected 2 percentage point increase in the share of minority voters from population trends emerges, then the Republican 6.8 percentage point margin in 2010 will be immediately sliced in half. And if the minority vote goes even stronger for the Democrats, reaching 2012 levels, that would eliminate about three-quarters of the Republicans’ 2010 advantage all on its own.

But, remember, the House did have an election in 2012. Republicans maintained their control anyway. Minority turnout will probably rise above its 2010 level, but it almost surely will fall beneath its 2012 level — Obama’s coalition heavily depends on voters who tend to show up at the polls only for presidential elections. House Republicans in 2014 will be facing an older, whiter electorate than the one that produced their current majority.

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum for New York Magazine

Jill Lawrence reports on the business lobby’s frustration with the chaos of the House. The business lobby hates Obamacare, but it recognizes that repealing the law is unrealistic. Meanwhile, business lobbyists want to avoid unpredictable self-inflicting economic wounds like a shutdown or a debt ceiling crisis and would like to see the two parties cut a deal on infrastructure spending and immigration reform. The business lobby spent heavily on putting Republicans in charge of the House in the first place, in 2010. Now, reports Lawrence, “these same lawmakers — described by one business lobbyist as ‘economic fundamentalists’ for their aversion to compromise — are a chief reason for holdups and breakdowns on bills that traditionally are bipartisan, as well as on big issues where deals may be within reach.” 

But here, too, there is less than meets the eye. The business lobby’s frustration is directed at the most obstreperous of the House Republicans. But those Republicans are also the most invulnerable to outside pressure — they come from solidly partisan Republican districts and have no chance of defeat. As long as the House is run by Republicans, the House leadership will rely on those Republicans.

The only way to get them out of the way is to change the party that controls the House. But that would require business lobbyists to turn against the most vulnerable Republicans, who also happen to be the Republicans most willing to go along with their agenda. And there is simply zero prospect that the business lobby will commit to defeating the Republicans who are friendliest to their goals and flipping control of the House back to Nancy Pelosi.

There is one way the House Republicans' extremism is hurting the party: by poisoning the party’s general brand, reinforcing the Democratic loyalties of the younger cohort that has lifted Obama into office twice. In particular, if Republicans kill immigration reform, then I suspect it could cement the hostility of Latinos for years and years to come.

Those voters can hurt Republicans over the very long run, and in presidential elections in the short run. But the House map will allow the Republican majority to survive with almost all white voters for a long time.

What’s more, Republicans can escape the damage inflicted by its Congressional wing by nominating a candidate who runs against it in 2016. That’s what the party did in 2000: George W. Bush made a few comments distancing himself from Congress, and that was enough to clear him of all the branding damage the Republicans Revolutionaries had done for a half dozen years and position himself as a moderate. It didn’t stop Bush from governing hand-in-glove with the selfsame Republican Congress once in office.

So the danger for Republicans isn’t that they’ll lose the House. It isn’t even that they’ll irrevocably poison their own brand. It’s that they’ll create an intra-party orthodoxy so strong it will prevent them from nominating a candidate who can distance himself from Steve King’s racial ideology and Paul Ryan’s economic ideology. In the meantime, they can inflict an awful lot of damage to the country at very little cost to themselves.