Last week we saw extraordinary scenes from the US House of Representatives. The election of the Speaker, normally a formality whereby the winning party gets behind a candidate, became an utter circus where 15 rounds of voting occurred before Republican Congress members could unite behind Kevin McCarthy. Having narrowly won back Congress in the November mid-terms after four years in opposition, this was an embarrassing and frustrating start for Republicans. It highlights the deep divisions within the party and explains their disappointing result last November.
My previous post discussed how in recent US history, mid-terms have generally gone against whoever has control of the White House. Whilst the Republican Party did regain control of the House, it was by the narrowest of margins, 222 to 213. Meanwhile, the Democrats once again have control of the Senate and in Governor races made a net gain of two against the Republicans. This was a long way from the so-called red wave some predicted that the Republican Party would make huge gains just as they did in 1994 or in 2010.
The factors at play which seemed to go against the Republicans were the 2022 Roe vs Wade decision which fuelled a higher voter turn-out, in particular of younger voters. As discussed in the previous post, whilst there is a loud and vocal anti-abortion lobby in the US, polls consistently show a majority of Americans supporting abortion in certain circumstances and more recently a growing number supporting legal abortion under any circumstances. Appointing anti-abortion supreme court judges may play to a section of the Republican base, but is out of step with where the majority of US voters are at.
The second factor is Trump’s ugly legacy on US politics and the Republican Party.Two years ago I wrote the following:
The ugly finale of the Trump presidency will have long term consequences. While many Republican lawmakers now distance themselves from Trump, it took them far too long. For the last five years, they have allowed Trump to create a narrative of misinformation tapping into America’s worst prejudices and fears. Trump has successfully built a following based on these lies and in the process created a political climate of hostility and fear that will inevitably now lead to further conflict and civil unrest.The ugly finale of the Trump Presidency
Within the Republican Party, there is now a clear split between two broad factions. The first are those who continue to support Trump, his false claims they he in fact won the 2020 election and the style of manipulative and divisive politics he has come to represent. The second faction is traditional conservative centre-right voters and those in the party who can see that it is time to move on from the Trump era.
Trump-aligned candidates overall performed poorly in the 2022 midterms, with this being seen as a significant factor in the Republican Party’s disappointing performance. That Donald Trump has now announced his intention of running again in 2024 will worry many in Party, as his brand has become increasingly toxic, especially given his ongoing legal problems.
Behind all this is a deeper problem, that the Republican Party’s ultra-conservative hard right, including the 20 who blocked McCarthy’s election as House Speaker, are unwilling and unable to compromise even with the more moderate wing of their own party. This hardline approach dates back to the Newt Gingrich era in Congress post-1994. In the past, this may have seemed a sign of strength, but the recent divisions trying to elect a speaker show the Republican Party as weak and deeply divided. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are broad churches and would both probably be two or three parties in most European democracies. In 2023, the Democrats under the Biden Presidency are doing a much better job at appearing to be a united political force. By contrast, a Republican Congress that struggles to elect a speaker has not shown voters they can govern.
Overall, the 2022 midterms were the best for any sitting Democrat President since 1978. Whilst losing control of the House is disappointing, the Republican majority is slim. Should hardliners try to block the Biden agenda as they did with Obama, they risk moderate Republicans breaking ranks. Further, hardline Republicans overplaying their hand in Congress may scare moderate voters away from the party and at the same time motivate the Democrat base to win back the House in 2024. Add to that the prospect of Trump returning in 2024, it could be about to get very messy in the Republican Party.