A GOP Congressman Has Broken a D.C. Taboo and Backed Clinton. Will Paul Ryan Cut Dissenters Any Slack This Year?

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Representative Richard Hanna becomes the first Republican congressperson to endorse Hillary Clinton.
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Considering all of the noise made by #NeverTrump conservatives and the conspicuous absence of many Republican elected officials at the party’s convention in Cleveland, the announcement Monday by Republican New York representative Richard Hanna that he would vote for Hillary Clinton in November hardly stands out. But, in fact, Hanna broke one of the strongest taboos in Washington and was the first (and so far only) Republican to do so this year.

It’s not as though strict party loyalty among members of Congress in presidential contests is an ancient norm. A lot of moderate Republicans conspicuously refused to endorse or otherwise support Barry Goldwater in 1964, and you can be sure that a lot of conservative southern Democrats ran as far away as possible from George McGovern in 1972 (aided by ballot designs that made it easy to vote for Nixon for president and then cast a straight-party ballot for everything else). But endorsing the other party’s candidate is usually beyond the pale. What do the parties do about it on the rare occasion when it happens, though?

This has actually only been a problem for Democrats up until now. In 1964, House Democrats stripped two southern members (Albert Watson of South Carolina and John Bell Williams of Mississippi) of their seniority after they endorsed Barry Goldwater. Watson soon changed parties; Williams used the martyr status of his persecution by Yankee liberals to get himself elected governor. In 1968, the famously reactionary Louisiana Democratic representative John Rarick endorsed George Wallace, and he, too, lost his seniority.

But on three other occasions Democrats have looked the other way. In 1956, Representative Adam Clayton Powell of Harlem, at the time one of just three African-Americans in Congress, endorsed the reelection of Dwight D. Eisenhower as a tribute to his support for civil rights. House Democrats left him alone out of fear that punishing him could produce a black voter backlash and divide Democrats (at the time a shaky coalition of northern liberals and southern segregationists). In 2004, Democratic Georgia senator Zell Miller suddenly endorsed George W. Bush’s reelection and then attacked Democratic nominee John Kerry at the GOP convention. Senate Democrats did not bother to mess with Miller because he was about to leave office at the end of that year anyway.

The most notorious recent case of apostasy involved Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee who endorsed, spoke for, and campaigned with 2008 Republican candidate John McCain. Had it been up to McCain, Lieberman would have been his running mate, but a potential convention revolt mainly stimulated by Lieberman’s pro-choice stance killed that idea. He, too, escaped sanctions. That was mainly because a 2008 flip by Lieberman into Republican membership would have given Republicans control of the Senate (at least until the election); technically reelected as an independent in 2006 after being defeated in the Democratic primary, Lieberman gave Democrats Senate control by caucusing with them. And then, after the 2008 elections, Lieberman’s continued participation in the Democratic caucus gave the Donkey Party a filibuster-proof majority (at least until a special election in Massachusetts took it away). In other words, Lieberman had leverage.

Richard Hanna has no such leverage. Unless other colleagues join him, he’s an isolated figure in the House, not just because of his endorsement of Clinton, but because he’s a frequent ideological heretic, supporting (for example) same-sex marriage. But the House has no leverage over him, either: He’s retiring at the end of this term.

Perhaps Paul Ryan can ignore Hanna’s defiant act of apostasy as the parting gesture of a lame duck. But if others take the same step, and House Republicans don’t act, Trump supporters will have every reason to suspect it’s sympathy rather than tolerance that motivates inaction.