The parlor games have begun as to how long House Speaker Kevin McCarthy can survive in his post now that he’s had to give up the power of the gavel to get it.
But one group of Republicans has more to worry about than McCarthy: The 18 GOP members who were elected in 2022 in districts that were won in 2020 by President Joe Biden. If the extremist wing of the House Republican conference gains a fraction of what it seeks, these Congressmen face a two-year nightmare of horrible votes.
By definition, the so-called crossover districts are inherently centrist. In the 2022 cycle, there was a historically low number of these, as reported at Sabato’s Crystal Ball – 18 held by Republicans and five by Democrats.
But it’s only the GOP members who will face demands from their party to cast votes in the upcoming session that are decidedly not centrist. They are the ones who will be whipped, for example, into votes to destroy America’s credit – and economy – in the name of irrational rhetoric about extending the debt ceiling. Or to slash the federal budget wantonly, perhaps by attacking Social Security and Medicare.
Bowing to the whims of GOP extremists might result in another whipping for those in crossover districts -- at the hands of voters in 2024. Therein lies a huge dilemma for McCarthy: He needs the relative moderates to stay with him if he accedes to the wingnut demands for red-meat legislation; but doing so might decimate the GOP’s slim House majority in the next election.
The Biden-district Republicans face their own crisis. No fewer than 12 of the 18 districts were won by Republicans with a victory margin of 3.8% or less in 2022, despite the midterm advantage they were presumed to enjoy. With such a thin advantage, they can hardly afford to cast Far Right votes.
A 13th seat was won by 8.2% by someone claiming to be named George Santos in New York’s 3rd District. It appears unthinkable that Republicans will be running Santos – the noted fabricator -- as an incumbent seeking reelection in 2024, putting it in play to return to its Democratic roots.
Of the remaining five Republicans who won crossover districts, only three won their races by double digits in 2022: Reps. Young Kim of California (13.4%); Rep. Nick LaLota of New York (11.8%); and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania (10%).
Two others with less room to offend constituents were they to vote with the wingnut fringe were California Reps. Mike Garcia (6.4%) and Michelle Steel (4.8%). Another Californian in a tight spot is Rep. David Valadao, who won reelection with just a 3.4% victory margin in a Biden crossover district.
Valadao was one of only two GOP incumbents remaining in office among the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump in 2021. (The other, Rep Dan Newhouse, R-WA, represents a district Trump won by 18 points in 2020).
Perhaps the best predictor of GOP extremist voting patterns is the far-right Heritage Action for America, which maintains an exhaustive scorecard of Congressional voting records and key votes. It advocates for precisely the sort of extremism demanded by McCarthy’s opposition.
Of the 15 incumbent Freedom Caucus members who voted against McCarthy on most of the ballots he needed to become speaker, all received ratings of 96% or higher on the Heritage Action for America scorecard for the two years of the Biden administration —as opposed to an average 89% for all Republicans and 0% for Democrats. (There were also five freshman members, with no voting records, who were initially among the “never Kevin” group).
A key vote tracked on the scoreboard from the last Congressional session was the $1.5 trillion Omnibus & Supplemental Package. It passed last March by a 375-55 vote over the objection of Heritage Action for America. Here’s how it described the measure:
“A 2,741 page, $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package filled with Biden's policy priorities along with an attached $13.6 billion for aid to Ukraine. It fails to reverse the COVID-19 emergency or the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates, as conservative leaders have called for, and doubles down on the Green New Deal-style government subsidies for green energy and climate policies.”
Of the 15 never-Kevin Freedom Caucus members, only Reps. Andy Harris, R-MD, and Mary Miller, R-IL, voted with the Democrats. But so did the three newly endangered Republicans who represent Biden districts in California: Valadao, Garcia and Steel. Also voting with the Democrats were crossover Reps. Fitzpatrick and Newhouse.
The only Republicans in crossover districts to vote against the $1.5 trillion bill were Kim and LaLota. And even they could face problems if and when the Freedom Caucus extremists push McCarthy to advance far-right legislation abhorrent to moderate voters.
Conversely, if even a third of the Republicans in Biden districts refuse – for their own survival – to cave into McCarthy’s tormentors on the Right, he won’t be getting any of their treachery passed. In which case, McCarthy might be looking at votes to remove him as Speaker that will remind him of the week of humiliation he just endured.