WASHINGTON — Conservative hard-liners are consolidating power in the narrow new House majority, presenting early challenges for Republicans in swing districts ahead of the 2024 election as Democrats seek to paint the entire party as beholden to extremists.
Twenty House GOP hard-liners have set the tone, extracting a series of concessions from Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to change House rules while securing plum committee assignments and winning assurances about advancing their legislative priorities.
Their aggressive tactics to control the House's agenda are already forcing lawmakers in competitive districts to vote on messaging bills that are designed to excite the right but could alienate crucial independents. Swing-district Republicans will have to balance the wishes of conservative voters to guard against right-wing primary challenges with the need to work with a Democratic-led Senate and President Joe Biden on matters like funding the government and averting a calamitous debt default.
“This is going to be the tightrope that Republicans have to walk for the next two years. The ascendant conservative populist wing of the party demands a seat at the table, while the majority-makers in Biden-held districts have to toe a more moderate line,” said Ken Spain, a former spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The majority-makers are going to have to demand a seat at the table when it comes to setting the agenda."
“The road to holding the majority in 2024 is through Biden-held congressional seats. Republicans are going to have to, at some point, offer an agenda that resonates outside of deep red country,” Spain said. “If you can’t win independent voters, you can’t win elections.”
Democrats are targeting 25 districts to win back the House majority next year, including 18 Republican-held seats that Biden carried in 2020. A spokesman for the House Majority PAC said the Democratic group plans to launch paid ads “earlier than ever” this cycle portraying GOP centrists as “extremists” beholden to the far right on matters like curtailing abortion and scaling back Social Security.
The White House, too, is already seeking to exploit fissures in the GOP and to paint the whole party as beholden to “extreme MAGA members.” Democratic leaders are working to portray far-right figures like Reps. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., as the faces of the party.
In the narrow Republican majority, McCarthy has only four votes to spare before he requires Democratic support to pass measures. Conservative hard-liners have taken advantage, having dealt McCarthy 14 defeats — the most failed speaker ballots since the mid-1800s — before they won enough concessions to back him. But moderates have stood with McCarthy despite their anger over his concessions.
Former Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., a moderate who lost his seat in the 2018 blue wave, said the Republican Party must show it can govern to hold the majority in 2024.
“Independent voters want governance, the ability to work in a bipartisan capacity,” Lance said. “To remain a member of Congress, you have to govern. And that means not shutting down the government of the United States, not denying people their Social Security checks or their Medicare benefits.”
He warned that Republicans cannot simply be “naysayers” and must be ready to “compromise with the Democratic Senate and a Democratic president.” He said swing-district Republicans need to be willing to use their power and withhold votes when necessary to counteract the influence of hard-liners and sink extreme proposals.
“Go to leadership and say: We have strength, as well,” he said. “Or we will vote with Democrats on sensible matters — not extravagant federal spending, but on commonsense matters.”
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., was a vocal critic of McCarthy’s decision to hold a vote recently on an anti-abortion bill as part of his rules package backed by the far right. Mace warned that the party risked alienating swing voters by failing to show compassion for women.
“There are political dangers,” Mace told NBC News after she voted for the bill. “In my district in South Carolina, it’s a pro-choice district. People were very upset about overturning Roe v. Wade. ... We need to find common ground, because we barely have a majority.”
Other Republicans in competitive areas are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from the far-right faction in their party.
Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas, a retired master chief petty officer in the Navy, was the lone GOP lawmaker to vote against the rules package. He warned that the changes forced by conservatives could lead to military spending cuts. And he indicated that he plans to keep standing up to his party when he sees fit.
“If you do a little research on what a retired master chief is, it will be crystal clear why I’m going to be a pain in the ass,” Gonzales said.
Matt Gorman, a consultant who worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2018, said committee assignments for right-wing members will be less important to the House majority than the White House dynamics.
“A lot of this will be driven at the presidential level in 2024,” he said.
Lance, the former congressman, argued that renominating former President Donald Trump could cost Republicans the House.
“The reason that I was not re-elected in 2018 is Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t think it had very much to do with me.”
Still, as Biden looks at an announcement about his 2024 re-election plans after his Feb. 7 State of the Union speech, some in the GOP recall that his former boss, President Barack Obama, ran successfully against a Republican-led House in 2012 and helped his party gain seats.
“I know well: House Republicans love to overreach,” Brendan Buck, who was an adviser to then-Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said on MSNBC, adding that the party must “make sure that you are focusing on real problems that real people care about, instead of focusing on things that only the far right are obsessed with."
“I’m not very confident that Republicans will show that kind of discipline,” he said. “And I think that’s actually what Joe Biden is banking on, that they won’t.”