For Democrats desperate to safeguard their majorities, there is plenty of optimism and a healthy amount of fear heading into November. Parties in power traditionally suffer in the midterms and even the bounce Democrats are enjoying over the issue of abortion rights may not be enough to save them. Much of the focus, for the left-leaning political class, has been on the high-profile contests for the Senate. Can John Fetterman hold on in Pennsylvania? Can Mandela Barnes drive out Ron Johnson in Wisconsin? Is Tim Ryan for real in Ohio?
Down ballot, however, is where the real danger lies for the Democratic Party. Republicans are still the favorite to retake the House and could wreak havoc even if Democrats hold the Senate. Joe Biden’s legislative agenda would be dead in a GOP-controlled House, much as it was for Barack Obama when tea-party Republicans stormed into the majority in 2011.
If the tea party was rightfully derided as a hard-right, recalcitrant bloc with no serious interest in governing, the 2023 House Republican majority could make that era of instability seem almost quaint in comparison. The House Freedom Caucus, for all their bluster, never impeached Obama. They ranted and raved and triggered a brief government shutdown, but their power always lay in the roadblocks they could throw up to the Obama agenda. And none of the leaders of that caucus, for all their newfound fame, could rival a charismatic, trailblazing president. Speaker John Boehner was wary of the far right anyway, and while he capitulated to many of their demands, he was a canny Washington operator, something of an adult in the room.
Next year, if Republicans have the majority again, they will enter office with far more fury and star power than whatever the tea party brought to bear. The new class of Republicans will be overwhelmingly loyal to Donald Trump, with many of them elected in primaries that have become, more than anything else, tests of how slavishly devoted a politician can be to the MAGA brand. It’s Trump’s party in every way, even if he’s indicted, even if Ron DeSantis runs for president. Many of these House Republicans tout all of his conspiracies and fever dreams. They are devoted to the Big Lie of 2020, that Trump somehow didn’t lose an election to Biden. Unlike the Senate Republican contenders, who have been forced to moderate themselves to appeal to statewide electorates, House Republicans face almost no such pressure, especially in gerrymandered districts. They can be as unhinged as they want to be.
A House Republican majority will inevitably impeach Biden — Trump was impeached twice and many of these Republicans will be out for revenge. Hunter Biden is scandal-scarred enough that they can hunt up a pretext, or just invent one. Impeachment is not a legal process. It’s political, and if Republicans have the numbers, they will force frivolous investigations and subpoena any Democratic official that fits the warped corruption narrative they’ve concocted for the moment. In Washington, it’s going to be a very long 2023 and 2024 for Democrats. Two-thirds of the Senate is still needed for a conviction and that threshold won’t be reached, just as it wasn’t in either of Trump’s impeachments. Perhaps Biden will get the privilege of proclaiming he was exonerated from something.
The new class of MAGA Republicans will be far more formidable, in terms of their mass followings and messaging, than any of the kingmakers of the tea-party period. The 2010s version of the Freedom Caucus never had anyone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who — with her more than 1 million Twitter followers — possesses all of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s media savvy and will probably be able to mount a presidential bid someday. Greene, like AOC, has found alternative channels to burnish her brand, growing into a right-wing social-media star almost overnight. Greene’s ascension to the majority will, at the minimum, catalyze all of her pet causes, like declaring the United States a Christian nation, railing against transgender surgery for minors, and QAnon.
Greene will have acolytes and rivals, those with their enormous fanbases in the new majority. Lauren Boebert, the Colorado congresswoman who gained fame for touting her love of assault weapons, is younger than Greene and has even more followers on Twitter. Twitter isn’t real life, but with a weak speakership, personalities will matter. The two are not exactly friendly, but will be united in their hatred of Biden and the Democrats — or at least in their enthusiasm for impeachment. More young stars of the MAGA movement may be on their way. All of them will be positioned to deny the outcome of the 2024 election too, if Biden or another Democrat manages to triumph.
Presiding over all of this will probably be Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader from California who is not known for his legislative prowess or ability to manage a caucus. He will be a weaker speaker than Boehner or Paul Ryan, and will probably bow to whatever cause the far right wants to push in a particular month. He will not be in charge of the House in any real sense, but rather captive to the conspiratorial currents online that fuel Greene, Boebert, and their ideological allies. As his resurrection of Trump after January 6 shows, he will, if necessary, subvert democracy to stay in power.
The Republican majority of 2023 will be fractious too, and it’s these divisions that could always limit their ability to frustrate Democrats and wage a sustained assault on democratic institutions. The Freedom Caucus is torn between those who want to return to the group’s roots — severely limited government spending and a neoconservative bent on foreign policy — and those, like Greene, who embrace isolationism abroad and have no particular interest in reducing the deficit or limiting Social Security benefits. At the very minimum, if McCarthy fulfills his lifelong dream of holding the speaker’s gavel, he will preside over the sort of legislative chaos never seen in modern times. He’ll be listening to the far right more than anyone else.