The GOP’s Kamikazes Are Back

The House GOP rump is once again running the show, leaving John Boehner scrambling and donors increasingly exasperated. By Eleanor Clift.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Republican Party in the last month has taken a sharp turn to the right, confounding more moderate voices urging the party re-brand itself after last year’s election loss. A Tea Party rally outside the Capitol Thursday captured the defiant mood with the far right maligning the merely right. Talk-show host Glenn Beck called the GOP “the Whig party,” with John Boehner the head Whig for appearing open to compromise. There were cries of “learn English” when Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart spoke a few words of Spanish from the podium. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, once a Tea Party favorite, didn’t attend the rally. Part of the Gang of Eight working on a bipartisan immigration bill, his name drew loud boos.

What’s going on? Does the GOP have a death wish? Any voter watching this freak show must wonder what happened to all those declarations about reaching out to Hispanics and women, and being more inclusive now that the 21-century is well underway. Recent events suggest that the GOP’s outreach strategy has been shelved, overtaken by a wave of recent polling combined with historical trends that has Republicans convinced that the path to victory lies in—drum roll—doing exactly what they were doing, only more so.

For a glimpse inside the workings of the GOP, I turned to Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette, who left Congress in January after serving 18 years in the House. He thought his party was on the right path when Republican Chairman Reince Priebus issued a soul-searching report after the 2012 election. “Then the last month something bad happened,” LaTourette said, blaming a flood of new data from Republican pollsters sketching out the stakes for 2014.

In addition to being an historically challenging “six-year itch” midterm election for an incumbent president, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is more unpopular now than it’s ever been with close to half of Americans 49 percent believing it’s a bad idea according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in early June. The message to Republicans, says LaTourette, “Now is not the time to be more moderate, to shift gears, to be welcoming—now’s the time to double down.”

He thinks it’s the wrong strategic choice. “I agree with Priebus. There are not enough 50-year-old white guys who are mad (at the world) to win elections.” Yet that’s the audience House Republicans are playing to in the way they craft legislation, and in the votes they hold. Thursday’s defeat of a farm bill that in ordinary times would easily pass with bipartisan support is the latest example of Republicans at war with themselves, and with much of the country. The bill’s deep reductions in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, drew a veto threat from the White House and prompted all but 24 Democrats to vote no. Sixty-two Republicans who voted no will go home and tell their constituents that the legislation still spent too much on food stamps, leaving a weakened and embarrassed Speaker Boehner scrambling to salvage the bill.

While their colleagues across the aisle are working toward immigration reform, House Republicans voted to reinstate the deportations of so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. The mean-spirited amendment which has no chance of becoming law was offered by Iowa Republican Steve King, who is known for his incendiary rhetoric about immigrants, whom he calls “aliens.” Only six Republicans voted “no,” though many more wished King hadn’t put them on the spot. “After the Steve King vote, people were very sheepish about the fact they supported the amendment,” says Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen. “But they didn’t want to risk the wrath of the far right.”

When the House voted this week along party lines to ban abortions after 20 weeks, LaTourette got an email from one of his biggest contributors. It said, “Nothing on jobs, nothing on the economy. These guys don’t have a clue.”

“This is not going to get turned around until we bloody their noses in some primaries and stop them from nominating Manchurian candidates that have cost us the Senate in three successive elections,” says LaTourette, who in January became president of the Main Street Partnership, which is working to counter the influence of the far right in next year’s primaries.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, looking at data from 50 battleground House districts, says Republicans have “lost significant ground,” and there is a “significant probability” that Democrats will pick up seats in next year’s election. “When you talk about the mess in Congress, Republicans own that,” he says. Yet he stops well short of saying Democrats can regain the majority next year. He does think based on his data that a gain of eight seats, which is what the Democrats netted in 2012, is within reach. Bill Clinton did it in 1998, with Democrats picking up four seats even as Republicans were impeaching him.

“The reason Clinton won seats is we made a victim out of him,” says LaTourette. “Americans love winners and they love underdogs, and when we took a sledge hammer to kill ants, people turned against us.” The former GOP congressman isn’t worried about his party keeping the House. He thinks Republicans will hold and maybe expand their majority, “and they’ll see that as vindication.” That’s his worry, then the long promised and long overdue re-branding will be pushed even further into the future.