In August, when tea-party darling Rep. Tim Huelskamp went down in a GOP primary for being too rigid for even conservative Kansas, it looked like the tide of Republican hardliners in the House might be receding.
Not only will Representative Huelskamp not be returning to Capitol Hill, but five other members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus are departing as well.
But the caucus, which embraces the tea party movement, is actually poised to acquire greater leverage among House Republicans. That's because amidst overall Republican losses expected in the House, the caucus is set to represent a bigger proportion of GOP seats.
That will likely make Speaker Paul Ryan’s job tougher than it already is – perhaps even threatening it and prompting another leadership crisis in the House.
“It’s going to be a bigger group, and it’s going to affect who the leader is and what the leader has to agree to,” says Ronald Rapoport, an expert on the tea party at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
There will be “real discussions after Nov. 8 on who our leadership will be,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina, a Freedom Caucus member, recently told WAAV radio of Wilmington, N.C.
It was Congressman Meadows who set the wheels in motion to oust Mr. Boehner last year. On Wednesday, he held a caucus powwow of several members at his apartment in Washington and reportedly discussed demands for rules changes and getting a caucus member into the lower ranks of GOP leadership. Not all members were told about the meeting, which angered some, according to Politico.
The real test of the group’s clout will be whether it can stay unified, even if proportionately it gains strength, says Matthew Green, an expert on the speakership at Catholic University in Washington.
On certain issues, such as spending, caucus members have stuck together, Professor Green points out. But on others, such as joining Meadows’s ouster effort last year, they haven’t.
“One of their first tests is going to be how they approach their party’s leadership after Tuesday,” he says.
'Ryan will have to fight for his job'
David Wasserman of the independent Cook Political Report, who tracks House races, notes that like-minded candidates are expected to win seats being vacated by the hard-liners, refilling their ranks. He figures that if Republicans lose 15 seats overall (they’re expected to lose anywhere from 10 to 20), the Freedom Caucus members would go from 14.6 percent of the House GOP today, to 17.2 percent.
“That is a noticeable difference,” he says, especially considering that those expected to lose their seats are more moderate Republicans and allies of the leadership. Republicans are still expected to retain control of the House.
Some Freedom Caucus members have serious complaints about Mr. Ryan, and would reportedly like to see him replaced when House Republicans elect their leaders on Nov. 15. They don’t like his wavering support for Donald Trump. They don’t like his backing of last year’s bipartisan budget deal. They don’t like some of the rules that govern the House.
“I think Paul Ryan is going to have to fight for his job,” says Mr. Wasserman.
But not all Freedom Caucus members think ousting Ryan is such a hot idea. Who would the alternative be? Ryan, no slouch conservative himself, only took the unenviable job after he got buy-in from all the various wings of the party last year.
Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks of Arizona supports the speaker, saying that in divided government, any leader would be “doomed to turmoil.”
Meanwhile, Ryan has provided funding and other help to more than a quarter of the members of the caucus. On Wednesday, he was campaigning for embattled Freedom Caucus member Rod Blum (R) of Iowa.
All the talk about ousting Ryan is premature, says Jason Pye, spokesman for FreedomWorks, an advocacy group that supports the Freedom Caucus.
“I don’t think this is about getting rid of Ryan right now. I think this is about holding Ryan to the promises he made,” Mr. Pye says. The speaker’s record is “incomplete,” he explains, adding that members want to see where Ryan will take House Republicans.
A looming question for caucus members is how he’ll handle the upcoming budget negotiations during the lame duck session after the election. The federal budget is set to run out in early December, and caucus members are loathe to sign off on a take-it-or-leave-it, overall “omnibus” budget where members have no say over its pieces.
One thing Americans can count on
Ryan only needs a majority for the speakership when House Republicans vote on their leaders a week after the elections. But Freedom Caucus defections could cost him when the speakership is put to the full House in the new Congress early next year, given that Republicans will hold fewer seats overall.
Regardless of who is speaker, or even what the constellation of power looks like in Washington after the election, “there are going to be governance problems in the House [Republican] conference no matter what happens anywhere else,” says Green.
If Hillary Clinton is elected, he explains, Americans can expect the same kind of tension within the House GOP that they’ve seen with an Obama White House. Key Republicans have already said they will continue to investigate her, and some are even hinting at impeachment.
One potential flash point could arrive next March, when a bipartisan agreement to suspend the debt ceiling limit expires. Since the tea-party wave of 2010, Republicans have tried to use debt and budget deadlines as leverage on policy and spending issues.
A Donald Trump presidency could also mean a bumpy ride, Green says. While a lot of Freedom Caucus members represent enthusiastic constituencies for Mr. Trump, many of them also are wary that he will abuse executive power and try to sideline Congress.
In this season of election surprises, one thing Americans can count on will be the Freedom Caucus – either holding the line, or crossing way over it, depending on your point of view.