How the GOP got here: The rise of ultra conservatives from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump
WASHINGTON – Republican congressional leaders have always had trouble with their most conservative members – but not like this.
While Kevin McCarthy did finally rack up enough votes to become speaker of the House, the deals he made – and the narrow margin of the GOP majority – may wind up giving the hardcore conservative movement the most power it has ever had, a movement that has lasted for decades.
"This takes it to a whole new level," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican who has studied conservative politics for decades.
How did the Republicans get here? Because ever-shifting groups of conservative activists have fought ever-evolving Republican establishments for more than a half-century, from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to the Tea Party to Donald Trump to, now, the House Freedom Caucus.
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The battle over McCarthy and the speaker's job angered many traditional Republicans who see this latest crop of ultra-conservatives as more interested in confrontation and television appearances than in governing or making policy.
Some said the power grabs by anti-McCarthy conservatives will lead to more chaos, government shutdowns, a breach of the debt ceiling that will crash financial markets, and GOP campaign losses.
"For the past six years, Donald Trump has shown that you do not have to have principles to be the leader of the party,” said Republican strategist Susan Del Percio. "These 20 are doing this because they can. They do not care about governing, just destroying.”
The insurgents say that over the years Republican leaders have bowed to the "status quo" and failed to follow through on promises to cut spending and downsize government. The national debt, they often point out, has ballooned over the past decades no matter which party was in charge – though they do not mention that their plans have often been foiled by Democratic senators and presidents.
During their efforts to block McCarthy, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said that "for far too long, conservatives left their leverage on the table and let the establishment ignore us and sideline us."
There's also a more prosaic reason that archconservatives such as Boebert and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., can wield power these angry days: There are about 20 of them, and the Republican Party has only a nine-seat majority in the House – meaning as few as five Republicans can scuttle legislation by switching their votes.
"When you don't have a big margin," Pitney said, "the people at the margins have a lot of leverage."
'It began with us'
Back in the 1930s, humorist Will Rogers made a famous joke about a certain political party: "I am not a member of any organized party. I'm a Democrat."
Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist and vice chair of the Conservative Political Action Coalition, said he thought about Rogers' joke while watching Republican infighting this week.
“But I guess now you’d say, ‘I don’t belong to any political party. I’m a Republican,’” he said.
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When did it start to change? Different people cite different eras.
Former Illinois GOP Rep. Joe Walsh traced it to the rise of the Tea Party that fueled his election to the House in 2010, the year the Republicans won Congress by running against President Barack Obama and his health care plan. Tea Party members who took office intensified their attacks on Obama, the Democrats, and, in some cases, Republican leaders.
“No doubt, it began with us," Walsh said. "You can draw a direct line."
Walsh served one term, losing in 2012 to then-Democratic candidate and current U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth. In 2020, he switched his party affiliation from Republican to independent, saying his former party “became a cult.”
Never conservative enough
The Tea Party and its successor also evolved from movements that have marked Republican politics since they formed in the years before the Civil War.
They have differences among themselves, but they share a pattern: Whenever a leader ascends to the top, a new faction develops to argue that the party is drifting from the cause and placating the "establishment." It seems these establishments haven't been conservative enough.
It happens in all parties, but recent Republicans have been especially noisy.
"You're always going to have some folks far out there who don't think the leadership – the establishment – is liberal or conservative enough," said Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University who has written about political factions.
The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, faced the wrath of "Radical Republicans" over the conduct of the Civil War and the pace of slave emancipation.
In the pivotal election of 1912, former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, more progressive than party stalwarts, ran against more conservative successor William Howard Taft. Roosevelt wound up leading a third party that split the GOP vote and helped elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson (and made the GOP a more conservative institution as a result).
From Goldwater to Gingrich
The current group of hard-liners can also trace its lineage to a defeated presidential candidate from nearly 60 years ago: Barry Goldwater.
In 1964, Goldwater mounted an insurgent campaign against the "Eastern Establishment" and managed to capture the nomination at a fractious convention. The Arizona standard-bearer lost in a landslide to President Lyndon Johnson – a year after John F. Kennedy's assassination – but he inspired a number of conservative followers into politics.
One of them, Ronald Reagan, became governor of California and, in 1976, challenged incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Reagan lost, narrowly, but came back four years later to win the presidency, a milestone for the conservative movement.
During his presidency, Reagan also took some flak from his far right – "let Reagan be Reagan!" went the mantra – but other conservatives during the 1980s took aim at a different target: the U.S. House, which Democrats had controlled for decades.
One of their leaders was a backbencher named Newt Gingrich, who argued – like conservatives before and since – that Republican leaders gave in too much to the Democratic majority. Launching a steady volley of verbal attacks on Democrats and some moderate Republicans, Gingrich climbed the ladder of Republican leadership.
The Georgia Republican also led the party in the historic 1994 election, when Republicans won control of both the House and the Senate. In the years that followed, they repeatedly clashed with Democratic President Bill Clinton, shutting down the government on occasion amid fights over government spending.
Gingrich also eventually faced a revolt from conservatives, though those disputes had more to do with power-sharing than ideology. Still, after a disappointing election in 1998 – not unlike the reversals suffered by Republicans in November – Gingrich resigned from the speakership and from Congress itself.
Gingrich has denounced McCarthy's critics as selfish, noting that more than 90% of the House Republican Conference voted for McCarthy in repeated ballots. "I mean, any five people can get up and say, ‘I’m going to screw up the conference, too'," he told Fox News.
From the Tea Party to Freedom Caucus
Little more than a decade after Gingrich's departure came the Tea Party, named for the American colonialists who dumped British tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.
After the Republicans claimed Congress in 2010, Tea Party members bedeviled GOP House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Both left their posts with harsh comments about the Republican right wing.
When reached by phone, Boehner declined to comment on those tumultuous years that ultimately led to his resignation in 2015. “Sorry,” he said, "I’ll just get myself in trouble.”
In his 2021 memoir, Boehner said liberals and conservatives have their share of "legislative terrorists," but the Republican "chaos caucus" devolved into "a predictable pattern."
"The far-right knuckleheads would refuse to back the House leadership no matter what, but because they were 'insurgents' they never had the responsibility of trying to actually fix things themselves," Boehner wrote.
Instead, they got to "continue to complain loudly about how Washington’s spending problem never got solved," he added, and "they got another invitation to go on Fox News or talk radio, or they got another check from their friends in outside groups."
Now these conservatives, who in 2015 formed what they called the House Freedom Caucus, are contending with McCarthy.
Walsh, the former congressman, said this crop of conservatives is different because they would rather fight than govern. He said the Tea Party’s biggest gripes with Boehner involved issues, particularly federal spending.
The McCarthy rebellion “doesn’t appear at all to be about policy,” Walsh said. “They don’t seem to have an agenda. They just want to burn (stuff) down.”
Donald Trump and MAGA
House Freedom Caucus members followed the lead of Trump after he won the presidency. That included Trump's frequent criticism of the Republican establishment, particularly Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.
The results included more government shutdowns and confrontations over the debt ceiling. A Freedom Caucus chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows, wound up as Trump's White House chief of staff.
Ultra-conservative House Republicans vociferously defended Trump during his two impeachments, including the one that followed the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.
They continued to embrace Trump and his "Make America Great Again" movement throughout the 2024 elections, which generally went badly for the Republicans but produced a silver political lining for its very conservative wing.
The Republicans did win the House, but by a far smaller margin than they had hoped – 222-213. That narrow margin gives the hard right more power – and McCarthy found out during the speaker election circus that may haunt his term.
The 20 members who consistently voted against McCarthy make up a little less than 10% of the caucus, but they picked up more power through opposing the aspiring speakers.
Seeking the last several votes needed to prevail, McCarthy agreed to rule changes and committee assignments that, essentially, will make it easier for conservatives to push their agenda and thwart the establishment.
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Gaetz, a McCarthy enemy who at one point nominated Trump for speaker, made the attempted power grab explicit during an interview on Fox News.
"If my colleagues get what they want from McCarthy, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus will actually be more important than the speaker of the House in determining the legislation that reaches the floor, how amendments are processed and how spending occurs going forward," Gaetz told Fox host Laura Ingraham.
In short: The Republican battle over McCarthy's speaker position is a sign of things to come, said Green, author of "Legislative Hardball: The House Freedom Caucus and the Power of Threat-Making in Congress."
"It doesn't bode well for the Republican majority," Green said. "These folks aren't going away."
‘Normal vs. crazy’
Bobbie Kilberg, an influential donor and former political strategist for presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, fears today's infighting between Republican leadership and its unflinching conservative flank could lead to one-party rule – and not in the favor of her GOP.
“If we can’t right the ship this year, by 2024 Democrats will win up and down the ballot,” she said.
The majority of American voters are sensible and centrist, she said, and they want center-right problem-solvers who will work across the aisle, Kilberg said.
A majority of Republicans and Democrats think their respective parties are too extreme, according to a USA TODAY poll in December, and some respondents called for more bipartisanship.
The several rounds of voting that failed to produce a House speaker until the 15th try probably will turn off voters, Kilberg.
“We’re just giving them normal versus crazy,” she said.
The establishment may have a silver lining of its own, some Republicans said: More infighting eventually could give the party an opportunity to remake itself down the line.
Said Kilberg: "You almost need to crash and burn and start again."