Fight for Speaker Reveals Four Types of House Republicans

Jim Jordan, left, and the press after his bid for speaker ended Friday.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Up until a few weeks ago, no member of the House Freedom Caucus had ever gotten close to becoming House speaker. After Jim Jordan’s bid, it’s hard not to wonder whether a right-wing speakership might be a matter of when and not if.

Yes, Mr. Jordan fell short of winning the gavel three times. But his failed bid nonetheless revealed that the ultraconservative faction of congressional Republicans is larger in number and potentially more broadly acceptable to mainstream congressional Republicans than might have been known otherwise.

Just consider all of the various votes that House Republicans took on Mr. Jordan since Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as speaker:

  • First, Steve Scalise defeated Mr. Jordan in the secret ballot Republican House conference vote, 113-99, a tally that gave Mr. Jordan about 45 percent of the conference.

  • After Mr. Scalise withdrew, Mr. Jordan won 124 votes in the Republican House conference vote against Austin Scott, enough to earn his party’s nomination for speaker. That’s about 55 percent of Republicans.

  • In yet another secret ballot test, 152 members indicated they would vote for Mr. Jordan for speaker on the floor, while 55 said they would vote against him. That’s about 70 percent of Republicans.

  • In the public vote on the House floor, Mr. Jordan won 200 votes on the first ballot for speaker. That’s about 90 percent of Republican, though his support declined in subsequent votes.

  • Finally, Mr. Jordan received just 86 votes in a secret ballot test of whether he should remain the party’s candidate for speaker, bringing an end to his bid. That’s less than 40 percent of House Republicans.

None of these votes offer a perfect measure of House Republicans. Alone, each is an incomplete account, shaped by different questions posed to Republican members under varying circumstances and even different rules. But together, they offer a detailed picture of how Republicans responded to the Jordan candidacy.

The votes suggest that nearly half of congressional Republicans are sympathetic to Mr. Jordan and the conservative right wing, putting anti-establishment outsiders within striking distance of becoming the predominant faction in the House Republican conference. It suggests that the party’s right wing could, under circumstances not necessarily too different from those today, make a serious bid for House leadership — and win.

For simplicity, let’s use these votes to break House Republicans into four groups.

The Jordan loyalist right wing (~ 40%)

No matter how you cut it, around 40 percent of Republicans backed Mr. Jordan at every stage. They backed him against a mainstream conservative leader like Mr. Scalise, and they backed him even after Mr. Jordan’s bid on the floor was clearly doomed.

It almost goes without saying that these Republicans are more aligned with the right wing than the party’s mainstream. That makes the right wing nearly half of the party.

It’s worth noting that ideology might not have been the only factor that shaped how Republicans voted for speaker. It’s possible that some Republicans backed Mr. Jordan because they thought a right-wing speaker could quell a right-wing insurgency. Maybe others thought Mr. Jordan was doomed and thus it was a no-cost opportunity to demonstrate their conservative credentials and appease the party’s activists, especially once Donald J. Trump endorsed him.

But Mr. Jordan earned the support of these Republicans time and again, even in secret ballot tests and even after his bid was stymied on the House floor. In all likelihood, this was earnest support for someone once derided as a “legislative terrorist” by John Boehner.

The Jordan-accepting rank and file (~ 25%)

To become his party’s nominee for speaker, Mr. Jordan won additional support from a group of conservative members who preferred Mr. Scalise but who ultimately gave Mr. Jordan a chance to lead the party.

This group of rank-and-file Republicans backed Mr. Jordan in a secret ballot vote, so it’s reasonable to suppose that their backing was genuine, even if he wasn’t their first choice.

The willingness of these rank-and-file members to freely support Mr. Jordan is a striking indication of how he and the House Freedom Caucus have been accepted as part of the mainstream of the Republican Party during the Trump era — not just as a begrudgingly tolerated fringe faction, as seemed to be the case as recently as a few years ago.

These rank-and-file conservatives may not be as flashy as the Freedom Caucus, but they’re one of the most consequential groups in Republican politics. They hold the balance of power in the House Republican conference. And while they may not necessarily always like anti-establishment insurgents — they preferred Mr. Scalise, after all — their acceptance of ultraconservative tactics in the Trump era, including voting against certifying the 2020 election, is decisive in defining the character of the congressional Republican caucus as a whole.

The Jordan-acquiescent rank and file (~ 25%)

Unlike the rank-and-file members who willingly accepted Mr. Jordan after the downfall of Mr. Scalise, these Republicans struggled to come around to the idea of voting for Mr. Jordan. This was not their idea. They didn’t want him. And many said they wouldn’t vote for him on the floor.

In the end, they voted for him anyway.

Many of these relatively moderate members might have felt a desire to help unify the party. Others might have acquiesced out of fear of Mr. Trump or conservative activists. As my colleagues reported, Mr. Jordan and his allies “browbeat” moderate Republicans by mobilizing conservative media and activists to pressure and demand that they fall in line. Many did.

Either way, the acquiescence of this group of reluctant Republicans is a familiar story in the Trump era. Throughout, a sizable share of Republican elites has shown reservations about him and the direction of the party. But in the end, most Republicans get in line.

The Jordan dissenters (~ 10%)

Not everyone got in line. In the end, 20 to 25 Republicans opposed Mr. Jordan on the floor — in public. As a result of these public votes, this is the group we understand the best. It’s also a group that’s more complicated than you might think.

Let’s start with the unsurprising stuff: This is a relatively moderate group. On average, they’re among the least conservative Republican members, around the 10th percentile among House Republicans as rated by DW-NOMINATE — an academic measure of member ideology based on congressional voting. They’re also from relatively competitive districts, with the typical dissenter hailing from a district that Mr. Trump won by about seven points, compared with about 25 points for non-dissenters.

But the dissenters weren’t all moderates and they’re not all from competitive districts either. Perhaps surprisingly, a quarter of the dissenters have already endorsed Mr. Trump for president in 2024. A similar number of dissenters voted against certifying the 2020 election result, and yet still opposed Mr. Jordan. None voted to impeach Mr. Trump after Jan. 6. This is not a group of Never Trump moderates.

The number of conservative dissenters is a reminder that the opposition to Mr. Jordan wasn’t strictly about ideology. As my colleague Carl Hulse put it: Mr. Jordan was “brought down by the revolt of the rule followers.”

Conversely, most moderates ultimately did support Mr. Jordan for speaker. So did most members of the Problem Solvers caucus. A majority of Republicans from competitive districts voted for Mr. Jordan as well. Perhaps most astonishingly, the two Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump after Jan. 6 but managed to survive election challenges voted for Mr. Jordan.

Or put differently, many more moderates joined the “acquiescent rank and file” than joined the dissenters. The dissenters may have been enough to bring Mr. Jordan down, but in the future they might not be enough to prevent the party’s most conservative faction from winning power in Congress.

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