Extremist factions within the Republican Party could wield disproportionate power in the 118th Congress. Expect internal discord, investigations, and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
It was one of the strongest midterm performances by the party of a sitting president in modern political history. Democrats, despite a supposedly looming "red wave" of Republican victories prophesied by forecasters and GOP figures, held on to the Senate and experienced fewer losses in the House of Representatives than were predicted in this month's elections. The predicted "red wave" ended up being what many observers called a "red ripple."
In close-fought battleground states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nevada, voters — in some cases by slim margins — almost entirely rejected congressional and state-level candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump. In House races, candidates identified as "MAGA Republicans" by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report underperformed other Republicans by about 5 points, according to analysis by the New York Times' Nate Cohn.
Observers noted that the possibility that Republicans could enact further restrictions on abortion, as well as concerns, highlighted by President Joe Biden, that many Republican candidates this cycle posed a threat to American democracy, led to high turnout amount young voters, persistent strength among Democratic candidates with independent voters, and defections among a small but critical number of Republican voters.
Still, Republicans won control of the House, giving the party power to introduce and pass legislation in the lower chamber and control of powerful committees such as the House Oversight Committee and the Judiciary Committee. However, because Democrats hold the presidency and have retained their Senate majority, Republicans' ability to actually legislate is limited.
As the Associated Press' Farnoush Amiri noted, Republican House members have focused since the election on the lower chamber's investigative powers, despite the voters' apparent rejection of the types of conspiracy-theory-based claims the GOP is now pursuing and the voters' own prioritization, as polls have shown, of issues such as the economy, health care, and immigration.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and the ranking Republicans on the Oversight Committee and the Judiciary Committee Kentucky — Rep. James Comer and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, respectively — say that they will pursue investigations into targets such as Biden's son Hunter, border security, and the IRS.
Hunter Biden, a long-time target of Republican accusations of fraud since before the 2020 presidential election, has so far been a major focus. Comer told CBS after the midterms that he would subpoena the younger Biden if he did not appear before the House Oversight Committee, and, in a joint press conference with Jordan last week, declared that "the president's participation in enriching his family is, in a word, abuse of the highest order."
"I want to be clear: This is an investigation of Joe Biden, and that's where the committee will focus in this next Congress," he added.
Jordan said that the investigation would be the priority for his committee too. "So this is the focus on the Judiciary Committee — the political nature of the Justice Department and the linkage now to what was happening with the Hunter Biden story," he said.
"The Republican Party has to be careful not to become the party that is branded by their investigations," Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of the website Inside Elections, told the American Independent Foundation. "Republicans have been criticizing Democrats for not paying attention to the top issues and top problems that Americans are facing, and nowhere in the list of top problems that Americans are facing are investigating Hunter Biden, Merrick Garland, or Anthony Fauci."
A Morning Consult poll conducted Nov. 10-14 after the midterm elections found that the House GOP's stated priorities aren't popular: Investigating fentanyl trafficking into the United States is the only GOP investigation or policy proposal that a majority of registered voters called a "top priority." Investigating Hunter Biden's finances and whether the president should be impeached is a priority for only 28%.
"Republican leadership is going to have to realize that even if you have a positive legislative agenda that you are promoting and you're doing investigations, that the media is going to be attracted to the investigations because they know that the legislative agenda isn't going anywhere with a Democratic president," Gonzales said.
In addition, Republicans' underperformance in the midterms and their small House majority have given the far-right House Freedom Caucus more power to extract concessions from Republican leadership by threatening to withhold their votes, elevating the profile of extremists in the GOP after the electorate rejected election deniers and abortion hardliners.
Already, several members of the caucus, which has become the congressional home for MAGA Republicans, have said they will not support McCarthy's bid to be House speaker. McCarthy, who has served as the House majority or minority leader since 2014, won the party's nomination for speaker but is struggling to win the requisite 218 votes to be elected to the position.
So far five Republican representatives, all members of the House Freedom Caucus, have said they oppose McCarthy's candidacy to be speaker. Politico reported that McCarthy's allies are so desperate for votes that they attempted to convince anti-abortion Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas to switch parties.
One prominent far-right Republican, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, is sticking with the GOP leader, telling Steve Bannon on his "War Room" podcast that opposing McCarthy could leave the door open to a bipartisan coalition of moderates elevating an anti-Trump Republican. McCarthy reportedly won Greene's support by promising to investigate the treatment of Jan. 6 insurrectionists, whom she has visited in jail and often describes as "political prisoners."
Greene could land a seat on the House Oversight Committee, which would give her a highly visible position from which to attack Democrats. Greene was stripped of her committee assignments by a House vote last year based on videos of her making antisemitic and racist comments and social media posts in which she spread conspiracy theories and called for violence against Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But other, less overtly hardline factions in the GOP caucus are also prepared to flex their muscles if the House Freedom Caucus tries to push its agenda too aggressively. One unnamed Republican representative told Fox News: "A lot of mainstream Republicans have been quiet so far because we know the process has to play out. But if it gets to a point where we're heading over a cliff, then I think a lot of us will be forced to step in, after all, anyone can exert leverage if the majority is small."
"I think we're going to see more tension than usual between the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Main Street Partnership members who are more anxious to have a legislative agenda and work with consensus rather than just investigating Hunter Biden's laptop," Inside Elections' Gonzales said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.