How 'RINO-friendly' will the new GOP Congress be?
Call it the "Rise of Swing-District Republicans." A sizable group of Republicans who won races in districts carried by President Obama in 2012, or won by Mitt Romney by 55% or less, means that strong conservatives in the House will find the road ahead difficult.
The new Republican Conference will include 26 members from districts that Obama won in 2012, and 47 lawmakers from districts that Mitt Romney won by less than 10 percentage points. In the previous Congress, just 17 Republican incumbents were in districts that Obama won and 44 in seats Romney won by less than 10 points.
The rise of swing-district Republicans could strengthen the hand of Speaker John Boehner against hard-line conservatives and create a new incentive for compromise with Democrats on issues with centrist appeal.
The GOP’s slimmer majority the past two years forced the speaker into repeated showdowns with tea party members whose overwhelmingly conservative districts insulated them from a political backlash. The incoming faction of moderate-minded lawmakers, enjoying no such cushion, will give Boehner more room to maneuver.
But this will create new complications for the GOP. The only question the past year was how many seats the party would seize from Democrats. Now the script is flipped. Even the most bullish Republicans acknowledge they’ve maxed out their majority and now must protect their politically vulnerable lawmakers, who will face pressure to distinguish themselves from the party’s conservative wing.
“Republicans won a larger majority, and that gives them more elbow room when it comes to negotiating. What the majority of the majority means today is different than what it meant yesterday,” said Brian Walsh, a former National Republican Congressional Committee political director who now heads a prominent House GOP-aligned super PAC. “I think where the difficulty presents itself is going to be on the big national issues, where the blue district members are going to have to defend themselves and break through their party.”
“It’s the big national issues that are going to create some divisions in the party,” he added. “And those will create some challenges.”
There's no reason for Tea Party conservatives to revolt – yet. After all, there are still strong Republican majorities against comprehensive immigration reform and regulatory overreach by Obama, and for business tax reform, not to mention a large majority that wants to do something to block the president's amnesty plan. The issues that Speaker Boehner will take up in the first months of the new Congress will almost certainly have broad support across all factions of the party. He has no wish to start the new GOP Congress off by picking fights with the right.
But that may change after a few months, when issues like Obamacare repeal, passing border security legislation, and bills addressing other immigration problems like visa reform and guest workers make it to the floor of the House. At that point, Boehner and his more moderate caucus will be in conflict with the Republican base. The resulting fight would no doubt last into GOP presidential primary season, complicating matters even further.
A war is inevitable, given the passions that will be unleashed, and Boehner has shown nothing in his past that would lead anyone to think he is up to the challenge. It's possible that a large number of these freshman congressmen elected from blue and purple districts will not be around to take a seat in January 2017.