Where the G.O.P.'s Suicide Caucus Lives
On August 21st, Congressman Mark Meadows sent a letter to John Boehner. Meadows is a former restaurant owner and Sunday-school Bible teacher from North Carolina. He’s been in Congress for eight months. Boehner, who has served in Congress for twenty-two years, is the Speaker of the House and second in the line of succession if anything happened to the President.
Meadows was not pleased with how Boehner and his fellow Republican leaders in the House were approaching the September fight over spending. The annual appropriations to fund the government were scheduled to run out on October 1st, and much of it would stop operating unless Congress passed a new law. Meadows wanted Boehner to use the threat of a government shutdown to defund Obamacare, a course Boehner had publicly ruled out.
Back home in Meadows’s congressional district, the idea was quite popular. North Carolina’s Eleventh District had been gerrymandered after the 2010 census to become the most Republican district in his state. Meadows won his election last November by fifteen points. The Presidential contest there was an even bigger blowout. Romney won the district by twenty-three points, sixty-one per cent to thirty-eight per cent. While the big story of the 2012 election was about demographics and a growing non-white population that is increasingly Democratic, that was not the story in the Meadows race. His district is eighty-seven per cent white, five per cent Latino, and three per cent black.
Before Meadows sent off his letter to Boehner, he circulated it among his colleagues, and with the help of the conservative group FreedomWorks, as well as some heavy campaigning by Senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Lee, seventy-nine like-minded House Republicans from districts very similar to Meadows’s added their signatures.
“Since most of the citizens we represent believe that ObamaCare should never go into effect,” the letter said, “we urge you to affirmatively de-fund the implementation and enforcement of ObamaCare in any relevant appropriations bill brought to the House floor in the 113th Congress, including any continuing appropriations bill.”
They ended the letter with a stirring reference to Madison:
James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that the “power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon … for obtaining a redress of every grievance…” We look forward to collaborating to defund one of the largest grievances in our time and to restore patient-centered healthcare in America.
Not everyone thought it was a terrific idea or one worthy of comparison to the brilliance of the Founders. Noting the strategic ineptness of threatening a government shutdown over a policy that neither the Democratically controlled Senate nor the President himself would ever support, Karl Rove railed against the idea in the Wall Street Journal. The conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer dubbed the eighty Republicans the “suicide caucus.”
And yet, a few weeks later, Boehner adopted the course demanded by Meadows and his colleagues.
The ability of eighty members of the House of Representatives to push the Republican Party into a strategic course that is condemned by the party’s top strategists is a historical oddity. It’s especially strange when you consider some of the numbers behind the suicide caucus. As we approach a likely government shutdown this month and then a more perilous fight over raising the debt ceiling in October, it’s worth considering the demographics and geography of the eighty districts whose members have steered national policy over the past few weeks.
As the above map, detailing the geography of the suicide caucus, shows, half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Naturally, there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or along the Pacific coastline.
These eighty members represent just eighteen per cent of the House and just a third of the two hundred and thirty-three House Republicans. They were elected with fourteen and a half million of the hundred and eighteen million votes cast in House elections last November, or twelve per cent of the total. In all, they represent fifty-eight million constituents. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just eighteen per cent of the population.
Most of the members of the suicide caucus have districts very similar to Meadows’s. While the most salient demographic fact about America is that it is becoming more diverse, Republican districts actually became less diverse in 2012. According to figures compiled by The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, a leading expert on House demographics who provided me with most of the raw data I’ve used here, the average House Republican district became two percentage points more white in 2012.
The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide-caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent. The districts also have slightly lower levels of education (twenty-five per cent of the population in suicide districts have college degrees, while that number is twenty-nine per cent for the average district).
The members themselves represent this lack of diversity. Seventy-six of the members who signed the Meadows letter are male. Seventy-nine of them are white.
As with Meadows, the other suicide-caucus members live in places where the national election results seem like an anomaly. Obama defeated Romney by four points nationally. But in the eighty suicide-caucus districts, Obama lost to Romney by an average of twenty-three points. The Republican members themselves did even better. In these eighty districts, the average margin of victory for the Republican candidate was thirty-four points.
In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.
In one sense, these eighty members are acting rationally. They seem to be pushing policies that are representative of what their constituents back home want. But even within the broader Republican Party, they represent a minority view, at least at the level of tactics (almost all Republicans want to defund Obamacare, even if they disagree about using the issue to threaten a government shutdown).
In previous eras, ideologically extreme minorities could be controlled by party leadership. What’s new about the current House of Representatives is that party discipline has broken down on the Republican side. On the most important policy questions, ones that most affect the national brand of the party, Boehner has lost his ability to control his caucus, and an ideological faction, aided by outside interest groups, can now set the national agenda.
Through redistricting, Republicans have built themselves a perhaps unbreakable majority in the House. But it has come at a cost of both party discipline and national popularity. Nowadays, a Sunday-school teacher can defeat the will of the Speaker of the House.