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McCarthy speaker battle shows a party still incoherent, ungovernable

When Democrats took over Washington two years ago, the Republican Party’s three most powerful leaders each offered divergent plans to take back power.

President Donald Trump told Republicans to stay the course with the politics of grievance and election denial. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) turned on Trumpism, striking deals with Democrats and denouncing extremism in his ranks. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) went for a muddled middle ground, blaming and then courting Trump, hoping that a battle cry of unity and the promise of power would wash away the contradictions.

None of it worked as planned. McConnell saw his Senate minority further weakened by the polarizing general election candidates that an increasingly isolated Trump had helped to elevate onto the ballot last November. Of the three men, McCarthy’s tack proved the most fruitful, only to run headlong into the reality that the new House majority he shepherded to power was not a governing coalition.

In full view of the C-SPAN cameras, the party has shown itself this week to still suffer from the incoherence and ungovernability that has been central to Republican politics, with rare exception, since 2013. At the start of the 2024 presidential election cycle, Republicans now face the task of rebuilding again

“It’s essentially the old Will Rogers’ line, ‘I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.’ But now you have to replace ‘Democrat’ with ‘Republican.’” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster at Public Opinion Strategies, who has spent decades measuring the divides in his party. “You have got to show people you can govern, and we have done everything to show that we can’t.”

The four days of public humiliation that McCarthy endured through 13 failed votes to pick a new speaker laid bare the challenge: The only path for McCarthy to potentially win the speakership after members return to the House late Friday night was a set of rule changes that will make the divisions within the party even more resonant over the next two years. House Republican leadership has further hobbled its ability to strike the deals with Democrats necessary to continue servicing the national debt and operating the federal government.

The party is also no closer to uniting around a clear strategy for winning back general election majorities that will return it to power in the White House, despite a Democratic leader in President Biden who has faced skepticism from his own voters about a reelection campaign. As McCarthy divined early in 2021, the GOP lacks a current path to a national majority without keeping the two wings of Republican politics — the election-denying populists and the independent-courting moderates — inside the tent. Trump last accomplished this in 2016, in a shock to the political system, and Republicans have not been able to repeat it since.

The party’s high-dollar donor class, responsible for backing an ever growing share of the cost of GOP campaigns, finds itself at odds with the priorities of a diminishing pool of grass-roots donors. The party’s primary electorate, meanwhile, repeatedly demonstrated last year a preference for candidates who were incapable or unwilling to appeal to less ideological voters.

In a classic of the genre, Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, went so far as to demand that supporters of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) “get the hell out” of her rally, just days before losing her election by less than a single percentage point. Many Republican consultants now blame this kind of thinking for the midterm results. The same mentality showed up on the House floor this week in the form of a small group of holdout purists unwilling to support McCarthy’s bid for the speakership.

An early review of last year’s election results by some House Republican strategists found that poor candidates and their own unruly congressional primaries were responsible for a string of unforced errors that kept GOP midterm gains far below the historical norm. They speak of a Republican brand problem, which also shows up in Democratic polling, and a series of Republican primary winners, like Joe Kent in Washington and J.R. Majewski in Ohio, who lost otherwise winnable House seats.

“We lost five to seven seats that we would not have otherwise lost because of horrific statewide candidates,” said one of the strategists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal party reviews of election returns. “The Democratic Governors Association going in to the Pennsylvania governor’s race to get Doug Mastriano as the nominee won them the governor’s race, the U.S. Senate race and three congressional races.”

Mastriano — who attended the Jan. 6, 2021, protests at the U.S. Capitol and supported an alternate slate of Pennsylvania electors supporting Trump in 2020 — lost the race against Democrat Josh Shapiro by about 14 more percentage points in 2022 than Trump did in the 2020 presidential election.

The frustration has been boiling over even at the Republican National Committee, which has been a stalwart of organizational might and deep pockets since the 2016 election. Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, seeking a fourth two-year term, is battling a challenge to her reelection at a meeting later this month by Harmeet Dhillon, a Trump-aligned attorney who is trying to attract support from both the most virulent opponents and supporters of the former president in the party.

Dhillon recently told New Jersey committeeman Bill Palatucci, a Trump foe, that her legal arguments in favor of Trump’s bogus claims were just legal work, he said. “I am willing to accept that and move past that,” Palatucci explained, while stopping short of saying he had made a decision in the race.

Whoever wins the contest, the national party has already begun another public effort to rebuild some consensus about how to win big elections again.

“We are looking at ’24 right now and the stakes are much higher and we can’t screw this up,” said Henry Barbour, an RNC committeeman from Mississippi who has been entrusted by McDaniel to conduct the review with Dhillon. “We have to understand that we did underperform in ’22. We can’t just put a bow on it.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who remains an ally of several disparate parts of the Republican coalition, says the solution is likely to emerge from the coming presidential primaries, which historically have helped rebirth political parties. He described McCarthy as a “relatively conservative leader” and McConnell as a leader “who has basically created Biden Republicans.”

But Gingrich is hopeful that other models will emerge. Whatever happens, the party will have to be cautious to avoid splitting into the camps that defined it during the 2022 midterms. “You want to avoid an always-Trump vs. never-Trump civil war. That is what worries me,” he said. “It is easy to forget that sometimes things happen in ways you can’t imagine.”

That was true in 1980, when Ronald Reagan rose from the damage of the Watergate scandal and a divisive 1976 Republican primary battle to usher in 12 years of Republican rule in the White House. It also happened in 2016, when Trump was able to win the presidency as a blank slate, who for a moment, was able to hold together a clear coalition for the party.

“Trump was able to galvanize all of the different factions because he was an empty vessel that kind of said what Republicans wanted to hear,” explained another Republican campaign strategist about the path forward, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. “He didn’t have a deep policy play that people could hate. He was just a business guy, who said he wanted to make the country better.”

With the fate of the current Republican leadership in the House and Senate all but sealed for the next two years, an expansive crop of potential candidates, Trump included, is positioning themselves to regain that mantle, aiming to resuscitate the Republican brand.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), an early favorite among many Republican handicappers for the presidential nomination, did his part this week, in the shadow of the spectacle on the floor of the House. In the inaugural address for his second term in office, he spoke broadly, in language designed to appeal to both followers of the president and his opponents.

“Decline is a choice. Success is attainable. And freedom is worth fighting for,” he said. “We insist on the restoration of time-tested constitutional principles so that government of, by and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”

As a rallying cry for uniting the party for the next election, it may have appeal. As a solution to the party’s internal divisions, recent history and the current gridlock in Congress suggests there is far more work to be done.

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