Speaker John A. Boehner’s resignation may have been prompted by a new fight over funding Planned Parenthood, but it was decades in the making.
His announcement Friday was the result of the House Republican caucus’ transformation into a far more conservative and Southern body than it was a generation ago. It is a shift that will most likely define the House for the foreseeable future, although it is less important in presidential primary politics than it is in Congress.
Fifty years ago, the House Republicans still reflected the party’s 19th-century strength in the Northeast and Midwest. But the party’s center of gravity has gradually drifted toward the South over the past few decades. Today, Republicans from the South, along with the reliably conservative interior West, vastly outnumber Republicans from the Northeast or the West Coast.
The infusion of red-state Republicans has transformed the politics of the party. Their growing clout has made it far more difficult for the party to compromise to avoid crises, like the so-called fiscal cliff, the 2013 government shutdown or the Planned Parenthood impasse of today.
That’s because red-state Republicans are far more conservative than their blue-state counterparts. They have been far likelier to support aggressive tactics like government shutdowns than their blue-state colleagues.
In the 2013 government shutdown, the party’s red-state representatives voted against the Senate compromise to restore government funding by a 91-27 margin; Southern representatives voted against it by an 88-25 margin. Conversely, blue-state representatives voted for the Senate compromise, 32-17, while those from the Northeast and West Coast voted for it by a similar 30-16 margin.
The divide was just as sharp on a vote to avoid the fiscal cliff earlier in 2013, when Southern Republicans overwhelmingly opposed a deal. Boehner’s Midwest was split on both bills. A similar divide can be expected on the Planned Parenthood vote, which could be particularly turbulent because evangelical Christians are so heavily concentrated in the South.
And if there is a protracted fight to decide the next speaker, this divide could become crucial again. In 2013, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., argued that the House needed “red-state leadership,” perhaps reflecting an awareness of the same schism evident in the data.
One thing is clear: The blue-state Republicans have lost clout in the House, and they are not getting it back anytime soon. Thanks to racial polarization, most Southern Republicans inhabit extremely safe districts. If anything, future Democratic gains in the House are likely to further erode the number of blue-state Republicans, just as Republican gains in the last midterm election further eroded the number of red-state Democrats. That’s especially true if Democratic gains involve rolling back Republican gerrymandering of districts in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio that have tended to boost the number of relatively moderate Republicans.
Boehner’s resignation, however, does not end the fight of the blue-state Republicans. They have lost the House, but they will take their case to what could be surprisingly friendly terrain: the Republican primary electorate.
The blue-state Republicans may be a distinct minority in the House, but they still possess the delegates, voters and resources to decide the party’s presidential nomination. In 2012, there were more Mitt Romney voters in California than in Texas, and in Chicago’s Cook County than in West Virginia. Overall, the states that voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 hold 50 percent of the delegates to the Republican National Convention, even though they contain just 19 percent of Republican senators.
In the last two cycles, relatively moderate Republican candidates won the party’s nomination by sweeping the blue states. Romney and John McCain won every Obama state in the last two primary cycles, making it all but impossible for a conservative to win the nomination. Romney lost all but one red-state primary held before Rick Santorum dropped out.
The blue-state Republicans also have the advantage of superior financial resources. The blue states represented 62 percent of all Republican primary fundraising in 2012.
This isn’t to say that red-state Republicans couldn’t decide the party’s nomination. The preponderance of elected officials are now from the red states, and they have developed a new Republican establishment – even if it doesn’t like to think of itself that way – of elected officials and networks of donors and operatives tied to more conservative causes than the party’s waning, if still wealthy, Northeastern elite.
If you take the view that party elites decide presidential nominations, then the growing number of red-state Republicans should open the door to more conservative candidates who ultimately win the nomination. They would have to do a better job of coordinating their influence around a single candidate than they have in the past, but they should have enough numbers to support a stronger campaign than candidates like Santorum or Mike Huckabee ever had.
Yet to win, the red-state Republicans will have to persuade blue-state voters. They haven’t had to do that in the House, where their numbers have been enough to force the Republican leadership to shift in their direction and to put pressure on the speaker to resign. But they won’t have those same numbers at the Republican convention.