WASHINGTON (AP) — “Embarrassing,” “chaotic” and “irresponsible.” And those were just the words that House Republicans used to describe the past three weeks as they removed one speaker from office and splintered over three successive nominees before finally landing on Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La.
Now they hope voters won’t hold the GOP’s infighting against them as they seek to hold onto their exceedingly narrow House majority in next year’s election.
Republicans already had a tough task on their hands. They can afford to lose only four seats to maintain the majority, and 18 of their incumbents are running in districts won by President Joe Biden in 2020. A Supreme Court decision siding with Black voters in a redistricting lawsuit could give Democrats a pick-up opportunity in Alabama. And Republican Rep. George Santos’ extensive legal troubles will make it harder for the GOP to keep that Long Island-based district in the Republican column.
Some Republicans worry the infighting that essentially shuttered the House for three weeks will serve as a further headwind against Republicans in their bid to stay in the majority. Some already sounded resigned to serving in the minority during the past week’s ups and downs in finding a new speaker, while others voiced hopes the passage of time will make the past three weeks a distant memory.
“Look, it’s not going to be great for ’24. I’m not optimistic about keeping a majority because of the eight individuals’ actions,” said Rep. Max Miller, a first-term Republican from Ohio. “But I just continue to stress that 4% of the conference did this. It’s not indicative of the Republican Party.”
Miller was referring to the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats to oust McCarthy as speaker after just nine months on the job. Republicans also look to put some of the onus for the past three weeks on Democrats.
“I think it has damaged the party, but we have to remember who plunged us into chaos. It was eight right-wing, fringe Republicans and every single Democrat,” said. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y. “They worked with the very people they tell us to run from to take out a speaker that 97% of our conference supported without zero plan on what to do next.”
Rep. Suzan DelBene, the chair of the campaign arm for House Democrats, said candidates in key swing districts will contrast the fractures among House Republicans with a Democratic focus on the need to govern and meet constituents’ priorities.
“The No. 1 thing you hear from folks is why don’t folks focus on governing? Why is there so much infighting? And this isn’t fighting between parties. This is Republicans fighting with Republicans, bullying Republicans, even threatening each other. That’s what the American people are seeing right now,” DelBene said.
One Republican strategist harkened back to similar turmoil a decade ago to argue that GOP candidates will probably emerge unscathed from the recent House chaos.
In 2013, House Republicans engineered a showdown over the Affordable Care Act, insisting that a spending bill to avoid a shutdown include measures to roll back key parts of then-President Barack Obama’s health care law.
The Republican-controlled House passed two spending bills with amendments aimed at crippling the law. The Senate, which was controlled by Democrats, rejected both measures. That left House Republicans with the choice of funding the government or shutting it down over their opposition to the healthcare law, and they chose the latter.
“I remember working in the House in the 2013 shutdown, and part of why we did that was we thought our members needed to touch the hot stove and realize they were going to get burnt,” said Doug Heye, who worked under then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. “And the reality is nothing happened. There was no political price for any of those members to pay.”
The following year, House Republicans gained 13 seats in the election, giving them their largest majority since President Herbert Hoover’s administration. And they gained nine Senate seats, retaking the majority.
That was a midterm election, in which members of the party not in control of the White House tend to perform better. Next year, the nominees for the presidency will be the center of attention for voters, with a likely rematch between Biden and former President Donald Trump. How the eventual nominees fare will go a long way in determining congressional races, as Americans increasingly vote along party lines.
“The only saving grace is that Biden’s economic numbers are in the toilet,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who represents one of the more evenly divided districts in the country. “In the end, I think Americans will be more worried about the state of the country, the economy, the foreign policy stuff. But this surely doesn’t help us.”
Rep. Marc Molinaro, a first-term Republican from New York, said he hopes voters will judge the Republican candidates on the totality of their work.
“The last three weeks were among the most distressing and disappointing, not only for me but among the most distressing and disappointing in the history of that chamber,” he said, nodding toward the House side of the Capitol. “We should be judged by not only those three weeks but how we now rebuild moving forward.”
Rep. David Schweikert, who represents an Arizona district Biden carried in 2020, said he was going on radio shows and having conversations in Costco to get the message out that the House’s dysfunction was to be blamed on a handful of Republicans acting out of emotion rather than ideology.
“You don’t hide from it, you say, ‘Look, this is embarrassing,’” he said.
He said the debacle may hurt “generic Republicans” trying to win in swing districts, but also contended that the election is still a far way off and argued it would be a distant memory by next November.
The fractures in the Republican Party that dogged McCarthy during his short tenure aren’t going away just because the House has a new speaker. In just a few weeks, House Republicans are going to have to find a way to fund the government at levels that the White House and a Democratic-led Senate will accept, or risk a government shutdown. Further turmoil will only feed into the Democratic argument that House Republicans are incapable of governing.
“Going into the ballot booth in November, I don’t think many people are going to remember anything that happened in October of 2023,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D. “But if this a foretaste of the feast to come, then we’re in massive trouble.”
AP writer Stephen Groves contributed to this report.