GOP's secret fear: House majority is in trouble

Top Republicans are increasingly concerned that their unpopularity and incompetence could soon cost them the House

Published August 19, 2013 11:43AM (EDT)

John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann                                                                   (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)
John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann (AP/Susan Walsh/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Joshua Lott)

If you listened closely last week, you heard the unmistakable sound of the air of certainty seeping out of a bubble of conventional wisdom. For months -- in some cases, years -- political junkies have held the notion that the GOP's House majority was semi-permanent as an article of faith. Times change.

After the elections in November, the GOP's hold on the House was almost universally thought to be unshakable, at least in the coming midterms, possibly through the end of the decade. Republicans had used the huge gains they made in 2010 to redraw the congressional map in a way that made their majority immune from referendum. Democrats won the popular vote for the House by over a million ballots in 2012 and didn't come close to recapturing it. The economy could soar, Republicans could spiral out of control, and the Democrats would still have a hard time winning back the House before the next census in 2020.

Nothing's changed about the map in the past 10 months, and the country's as polarized as ever. But suddenly Republicans aren't so confident that their majority is all that durable. Or to put it less charitably, the party worries it's so rudderless and unpopular that it might blow what everyone believed to be a rigged game much sooner than expected.

In three different stories, four reporters with strong Republican sourcing detected a specter of doubt haunting the GOP. The Washington Examiner's Byron York distilled it most clearly.

"Behind the scenes -- in whispered asides, not for public consumption -- some Republicans are now worried that keeping the House is not such a done deal after all," he wrote. "They look back to two elections, 1998 and 2006, in which Republicans seriously underperformed expectations, and they wonder if 2014 might be a little like those two unhappy years."

Expectations-setting is a timeless sport in politics, and everyone who covers politics knows it when they hear or read it. An aide breathlessly bemoans the odds against his candidate, the candidate mumbles that his debate opponent is a silver-tongued prince of the spoken word.

None of these stories has that quality. They all betray genuine anxiety about the party's inability to extend its appeal beyond an impassioned but isolated conservative constituency, and the internal problems that have prevented Republicans from executing an agenda or otherwise demonstrating the capability of governing.

Their problems are threefold and intertwined. First, the GOP has become effectively agenda-less, advocating policies that lack popular support, and that they quite possibly couldn't execute even if they controlled the government entirely.

Second, as Politico honchos Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen explain, "The party is hurting itself even more with the very voters they need to start winning back: Hispanics, blacks, gays, women and swing voters of all stripes." That's partially a consequence of their agenda-less-ness, and partially a consequence of its members' propensity to say things and advocate ideas that further alienate women and minorities.

Third, a combination of chance and poor decisions will turn the coming midterm into a referendum on issues custom tailored to energize Democratic demographics that tend to sit out midterms.

The first two problems require little explanation. Republicans continue to advocate an agenda of tax cuts for wealthy people, spending cuts for poor people, lax business regulation and religious social conservatism. They've used their control of the House to advance legislation affirming that agenda, though are at times too fractured to pass those bills. They're more interested in breaking Obamacare than with advancing their own ideas but lack the ability to repeal or defund it. Their limited power means they can't hope to accomplish any of their far-fetched goals without resorting to dangerous procedural brinkmanship. That's created a tense political climate where their most extreme members feel comfortable saying and doing things that further isolate the party.

And that's where problem three comes into play. Republican leaders were reflective enough after the election to commit to passing real immigration reform, but seem too disorganized to follow through, proving to the Latino voters they hoped to woo that elements of the party are truly hostile to their concerns. The Senate's immigration bill could become law, if not for the House GOP and the House GOP alone. Separately, a recent Supreme Court decision invalidating the Voting Rights Act's pre-clearance standards has thrown the question of how to protect minority enfranchisement to Congress, and House Republicans seem to think the answer is: "don't."

Later this year, Congress will contend with sequestration and equal pay for women, both of which present Republicans a choice of alienating their own base or riling their political enemies.

Unlike 2010, individual segments of the Democratic coalition will have their own unique reasons for showing up at the polls, and if they do, Republicans risk losing the one branch of government they control.

That's the theory. It's why Republicans are suddenly concerned. It's the theme of this column by Free Beacon's Matthew Continetti titled "Be Afraid."

The good news for Republicans is that scholarship doesn't back the theory that voters -- even single-issue voters -- turn out in greater-than-expected numbers when their issues are central to the election. It could happen. Anything could happen. But George Washington University political scientist John Sides emails:

I think people overestimate how much elections depend on 'who votes' as opposed to changes in 'how they voted.' Imagine how we got from a Democratic wave in the 2006 midterms to a GOP wave in the 2010 midterms. The turnout demographics don't look that different. It was more that enough voters changes their minds ...

I don't think that many voters are motivated to vote (or not) based on the specific issues in play. Lynn Vavreck and I investigated this question in our book on 2012 (out next month!). Specifically, we looked at whether women's attitudes toward Obama or Romney or stated likelihood to vote depended on the amount of news coverage of abortion and contraception (the fights about the ACA, Sandra Fluke, Akin, Mourdock, etc.). There was no relationship. In general, there has been much more evidence that mobilization depends on how voters are contacted -- e.g., face-to-face contact matters more than a phone call or mailing -- and much less evidence that the particular message voters get matters.

Of course, powerful parties don't become or remain powerful by ignoring politics and pinning all of their hopes on theory. It's natural that Republicans are reflecting on their agenda, even if changing their agenda won't matter all that much next November. What's interesting is that they're looking in the mirror -- and they don't like what they're seeing.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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