The Republican insurgency that engineered former House Speaker John Boehner’s resignation and has called for hard-line tactics such as defunding Planned Parenthood is rooted in some of the House’s most partisan conservative districts.
An analysis of House districts suggests that the Freedom Caucus is not necessarily a group of rogue hard-liners, but in many ways a natural outgrowth of the character of its members’ districts.
In some cases, the districts have been heavily gerrymandered to artificially create a heavily red tinge. In others, the districts are simply the most conservative corners of conservative states.
Either way, the attitudes of the Freedom Caucus appear to be generally in line with the wishes of the voters who elected them. Most Republican voters favor leaders who “stick to their principles even if that makes it more difficult to pass legislation,” according to a recent Associated Press/GfK poll. As a result, any attempt to oust members of the Freedom Caucus or to rein them in will come against hard political realities.
They are, by some measures, the safest members of the House.
In truth, a growing polarization in American politics, coupled with gerrymandering on both sides of the aisle, has made most districts safe. Only perhaps 60 of 435 House seats will be truly in play when the 2016 general election rolls around, says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political website run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
That has direct consequences for the tone of Congress and for what's possible legislatively.
An analysis by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington suggests that the relative safety of a district has a correlation with the political behavior of the member. Cook recently used budget-related votes to classify House Republicans into six groups on a spectrum from most centrist (willing to cut deals) to far right (which the report calls the “coalition of the unwilling”).
Cook found that, in general, as the safety of the district increased, the member was farther to the right on its spectrum. The three furthest-right groups of GOP lawmakers come from districts that, on average, vote 13 or 14 percentage points more Republican than the national norm. Freedom Caucus members are centered heavily in these groups.
Members of the most centrist Republican factions, by contrast, come from districts that edge Republican by smaller margins (five, nine, and 11 points on average).
Though there are only thought to be about 40 members of the Freedom Caucus (it doesn’t publicize its membership list), they often essentially have veto power because of the mathematics of House votes.
It takes 218 votes to pass a bill, and Republicans have 247 members. If no Democrats support a bill – as is often the case with the most partisan legislation – then the House leadership can’t pass the bill if it loses more than 29 Republican votes. The Freedom Caucus can deny leadership those crucial votes.
Moreover, the Freedom Caucus is simply the most visible force within a much larger body of hard-right Republicans. The Cook Political Report classifies nearly half of House Republicans as “skeptics,” “agitators,” or “rebels” when it comes to compromising on things like the budget deal or raising the federal debt limit.
Though the caucus doesn’t make its membership known, a Pew Research Center roster of people widely understood to be members offered a portrait.
Pew found that Freedom Caucus members have been in office for less time than the average lawmaker in Congress (though a number arrived before 2010). Chairing the group is Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, whose district “is gerrymandered into the shape of a pelican,” writes Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson.
The South is the group’s stronghold, as it is for the party at large, but all regions are represented in a membership that includes Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, and Raúl Labrador of Idaho.
Among the three dozen Freedom Caucus members analyzed by Pew, only a few face competitive general-election races. Representative Garrett in New Jersey is one, as is freshman Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa.
But the caucus is not invincible. There will be challenges to its members in the short and long term, experts say.
For one, the tea party movement, which overlaps with the Freedom Caucus, has seen its support ebb in recent polls, even among many conservative Republicans.
In addition, the well-funded United States Chamber of Commerce is troubled by the rise of Republicans willing to shut down the country and take it to the precipice of fiscal cliffs.
“When the tea party was first formed and they had four or five principles of sound economics, reasonable taxation … I mean who can be opposed to that?” Chamber President Tom Donohue said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters in October. “But it has gone far beyond that to the point that it has lost sight of what the fundamental reality is, and that is to govern in a way to create economic growth and to create jobs.”
For now, the Chamber appears to be more focused on preventing new Freedom Caucus-style Republicans from being elected than on ousting those in Congress.
“Some of the tea party members … I would have to say are fairly entrenched. There is not going to be a viable challenger that is going to succeed against them,” said Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, at the breakfast.
In the longer term, the once-every-10-year redistricting process that led to the gerrymandering could turn against the Freedom Caucus, as states consider measures designed to separate the process from political machinations. Florida is a case study to watch. Four of the Freedom Caucus’s members are from the state (Curt Clawson, Ron Desantis, Bill Posey, and Ted Yoho).
For now, the seats appear quite safe. But the state has changed its constitution to ban politics-driven redistricting. Its current districts are facing a court review.
Demographic changes also could alter the tone of politics in Republican districts over time.
Millennials have different views on some social issues than their parents, for example.
And in places like Florida, as waves of new residents arrive, it’s making the state more racially diverse. The Freedom Caucus districts are the most rural ones, so “it’ll take a while” for this to alter the politics there, says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
But change is coming, she suggests. “I personally don't see the Republican Party in Florida going really conservative.”