Fate of the Gerrymandering GOP

On election night last November, a shell-shocked Republican Party began the process of accepting its need to move to the center on issues relevant to specific constituencies like women and Hispanic voters.

The conventional wisdom radiating out of Washington was that congressional Republicans, even in the House, would have no choice but to get on board with an immigration reform package that included a pathway to citizenship, and the social issues that turned off so many women, minorities and moderate voters would take a backseat to jobs and the economy.

But the fatal flaw in this reasoning was that too many elected Republicans, primarily on the House side, couldn’t care less about the national health of their party. And in fact, their priorities are often in direct contradiction to those of their leadership and their potential presidential candidates, who are desperate to broaden the appeal of the GOP brand.

The takeaway from Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 was that the Republican Party had to moderate to survive. Yet thanks to the GOP’s gerrymandering of congressional districts in 2010, almost all House Republicans have very little incentive to compromise.

For weeks, pundits and politicians alike spoke of an arbitrary 70-vote threshold in the Senate for immigration reform. The assumption was that such a strong showing would pressure the House into following suit. Surely the lower house wouldn’t defy an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Senate or ignore the realities of demographic shifts. After all, there’s a consensus that the very existence of the GOP is at stake.

But this fantasy that House Republicans will do what is in the best interest of their party fails to recognize the new, every-man-for-himself mentality of a gerrymandered House in which most Republicans are in deep red districts. Nearly every Republican congressman or congresswoman is in far greater danger of being challenged from the right in a primary, than they are of alienating what few moderate constituents they have.

The Cook Political Report dug into each individual GOP House district recently, and the findings illuminate why most members have very little incentive to moderate on immigration, gun control, abortion, gay rights, climate change or any other hot social issue.

There are 234 Republicans in the House, and of those, only four are in districts that could be considered “lean Democrat” while the rest are either in lean or solid Republican seats. And Republican districts are far less racially diverse (the average GOP district is 75% white, compared to 51% for the average Democratic district.)

So when a GOP star like Sen. Marco Rubio personally throws his weight behind immigration reform, or Sen. Lindsey Graham warns of the death of his party if they don’t pass reform, they shrug it off. And when they’re reminded of Mitt Romney’s atrocious 27 percent showing among Latino voters last year, the response of House Republicans is that he wasn’t conservative enough.

In the past, the Speaker of the House had tremendous influence over his conference. But John Boehner is inarguably the weakest speaker in modern history, unable to bring his fellow Republicans along on major issues like a grand bargain, immigration reform or even the recent farm bill, which was the latest in a series of humiliating defeats for the Speaker.

The unenviable position Boehner finds himself in is the result of his insistence to abide by the “Hastert Rule,” a dead-end idea that no bill should get a vote unless it’s supported by a majority of House Republicans. Boehner is faced with a choice: either violate the Hastert Rule, rely largely on Democratic votes and pass real legislation, thereby risking mutiny among his conservative caucus. Or continue to be a slave to his very extreme base and keep his job, but ensure his place in history as a failure. At this point, Boehner seems determined to keep his job over all else.

When a GOP star like Sen. Marco Rubio personally throws his weight behind immigration reform, or Sen. Lindsey Graham warns of the death of his party if they don’t pass reform, House Republicans shrug it off.

Another dynamic that will continue to cause headaches for sane Republicans is that more than ever, there is a profound dichotomy between presidential and midterm electorates. It’s as if the country that turns out in presidential years is entirely different than the one that turns out in midterms. So on the Republican side, red-meat rhetoric and continued obstruction may well be rewarded in 2014, but deadly in 2016.

Some Republicans do see the bigger picture. Several conservative governors, like Florida’s Rick Scott, who came in at the same time as the Tea Party Congress have learned after overreaching and seeing their numbers plummet. They see now that they need to give at least the impression of moderation. They’ve focused more on economic issues and worked with their legislatures, and their approval numbers have climbed.

House Republicans have no such incentive. They realize they can continue to be a protest movement rather than a governing force, and still maintain their majority because of redistricting. To these members, compromise is never a consideration, no matter the issue. It’s their way or the highway.

Newt Gingrich called this the “perfectionist caucus” back in the 1990s. These are true believers who don’t respond to political pressure or long-term demographic realities. They will go down with the ship even when there’s a perfectly good life-raft within reach.

Between filibuster abuse in the Senate and the doctrinaire fringe-right in the House, it’s difficult to be optimistic about progress on major issues in the near future. And whoever the Republican nominee for president is in 2016, he or she will have to navigate these treacherous waters.

 

Doug Daniels is a former staff reporter for Campaigns & Elections. He is the author of the forthcoming memoir Sifting Through the Wreckage.