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Why this political scientist thinks Congress will be even more broken in 2017

The Freedom Caucus, the most conservative faction within the GOP, is set to gain influence this January.

Capitol building
The damn thing already barely works

Liberals are feeling better than they have in months about the congressional elections. Donald Trump’s recent implosion risks bringing down the rest of his party with him, opening up the possibility that Democrats can win back not only the Senate but also the House of Representatives this November.

But while the news may look good for congressional Democrats right now, there’s also reason to believe they’ll be dealing with an even more ferocious opposition party in 2017.

And that’s because the House Republicans set to lose this fall are among the most moderate members of their caucus. In turn, that will only increase the relative influence of the 15 or so “Freedom Caucus” hard-liners making up the Republicans’ most conservative faction, according to Georgetown political scientist Michele Swers.

“Right now, the GOP has the biggest House majority since the Hoover administration, and they still can’t get their appropriations bills passed. Let’s say the GOP loses 10 seats or 15 seats — that’s just 10 or 15 more Freedom Caucus votes Ryan is going to need to get his bills passed,” says Swers, a congressional expert. “And the Freedom Caucus members are in safe seats, so they won’t be the Republicans who lose.”

I called Swers on Thursday to learn more about what the House may look like after November. We discussed the state of the House race, the forces helping Democrats in 2016, and why Congress will be somehow even more gridlocked come January.

What will the next House of Representatives look like?

Paul Ryan

Jeff Stein

I wanted to shift to what you think of how the next Congress will work. What changes if Democrats win the Senate but can’t manage to take the House?

Michele Swers

There will be more gridlock if Democrats take the Senate but don’t take the House.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton wants a Democratic Senate — to pass her Supreme Court nominations, for example. But a Democratic Senate and a Republican House will probably introduce a new degree of distrust, because there won’t be any agreement between the two houses of Congress.

Paul Ryan will have more difficulty cutting a deal with Chuck Schumer [the expected Senate Democratic leader after Sen. Harry Reid retires] than with Mitch McConnell. If the House and Senate can’t reach agreement on policy, we’ll see even more conflict and delay and obstacles to negotiation with the president.

[Brookings scholar and George Washington professor] Sarah Binder’s work on gridlock — she has a whole book on it — tracks and measures gridlock and why things don’t pass through Congress. And she shows that when the distance between the House and the Senate grows, it can be more important than the distance between the president and Congress for predicting levels of gridlock.

Jeff Stein

There’s been so much talk about far-right challengers taking on more establishment Republicans during their primaries. What effect do you think that might have on the next GOP House caucus?

Michele Swers

[Clark University political scientist] Robert Boatright does a lot of research on congressional primaries, and he finds that they generally don’t work — most candidates who challenge an incumbent lose.

But there has been an increase, particularly on the Republican side, in the number of primary challenges and the number that are ideologically motivated. So incumbents always “run scared,” raising more money and campaigning harder to try to dissuade challengers from filing.

Then there’s the question of retirement. We look at whether new districts flip Democratic to Republican, but you also need to think of who retires and who is replacing them — you don’t need a successful primary challenger to make a district more ideological and conservative.

And when several Georgia incumbents retired in 2014, the open seat primaries to replace them included a large number of candidates where the primary winner was more conservative. So you are now replacing an establishment Republican, who may have cooperated with leadership, with a more ideological member who prefers to align with the Freedom Caucus.

Look at [retiring GOP Rep. Richard] Hanna’s seat in New York. This is a toss-up district Democrats need to win — the person who was nominated to replace him is much more conservative, so much so that Hanna refused to even endorse [the Republican nominee]. If a Richard Hanna — a moderate Republican, one of the last willing to make deals — is replaced by someone who definitely looks to be in the mold of Ted Cruz, that changes the dynamic. And that could change the power of the Freedom Caucus compared to that of the Republican leadership.

Jeff Stein

Do you think the Freedom Caucus will be more or less powerful after the election?

Michele Swers

I think the Freedom Caucus will have more influence, because the number of people they have will be bigger relative to the overall GOP caucus.

Right now, the GOP has the biggest House majority since the Hoover administration, and they still can’t get their appropriations bills passed. Let’s say the GOP loses 10 seats or 15 seats — that’s just 10 or 15 more Freedom Caucus votes Ryan is going to need to get his bills passed. And the Freedom Caucus members are in safe seats, so they won’t be the Republicans who lose.

Jeff Stein

There’s been a ton of talk about the ongoing GOP civil war around Trump. Do those tensions subside in a Republican House caucus? Assuming he’s at all interested, will Trump, if he loses, be able to influence them from the outside?

Michele Swers

I don’t think Trump has a lot of ideological positions, so I don’t know if there will be an ideological schism within the GOP House caucus. Trump had very few strong supporters in Congress because he’s an anti-establishment guy and Congress is a place of the establishment.

There could be some divide over the portions of the electorate he mobilized, who might be angry at members who didn’t support him. They’ll want to keep portions of their base — like the non-college-educated white men that Trump has motivated — but they also want to build out their coalition to attract more minorities, and they don’t want to alienate the pro-business, pro-trade Chamber of Commerce Republicans that have been a mainstay of the party.

Look at Utah Sen. Mike Lee, one of the leading Tea Party conservatives, who has refused to endorse Trump. Trump is not popular in heavily Mormon Utah, but [Lee’s] more moderate colleague Orrin Hatch is thinking of running for reelection in a state where small, motivated contingents can take over the convention nominating system Republicans use to choose their Senate nominee. He’s not going to want to do anything to have Trump supporters mobilize against him.

It’s not my sense that the Trump constituency in Congress will be incredibly large — if you see who is campaigning with him, it’s mostly not the members [of the House]. I think Trump is somewhat of and to himself. It’s his supporters they’ll be concerned about.

Will efforts to bring House Republicans down with Trump work?

Capitol Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Jeff Stein

It looks like the main strategy from the Democratic House candidates is going to be to tie their Republican rivals as closely to Trump as possible.

Do we have any reason to believe that will work? Will voters really distinguish between the Republicans’ presidential candidate and the down-ballot races?

Michele Swers

If you look at what’s happened to congressional races since the 1990s, people aren’t splitting tickets anymore. The number of people voting for a Democratic president and a Republican senator or House member, or vice versa, has been in a continual decline.

So what we’d expect is that their fate is tied to the presidential candidate, and the ground game for the presidential candidates in a battleground state will lift the boats or sink their party’s congressional candidate.

But with Trump’s current implosion coming this early, it’s plausible they could try to separate themselves from him. Paul Ryan has come out and said he’s not going to defend Trump — and that’s giving his members more of a chance to do something else. In 1996, when it was clear that Bob Dole was going to lose the presidential election, the Republican House and Senate members said, “You need us to be a check on President Clinton.” And that largely worked.

Whether or not they can still do that will depend on the ability of Ryan’s members to localize the race. That once worked: Conservative Democrats in the South, for instance, could make the case for their personal character and records, and voters bought that by reelecting their Democratic House member while choosing a Republican like Reagan for president. But we’ll have to wait to see if it can happen again.

Jeff Stein

All of the estimates I’ve seen showing Republicans keeping the House and Senate have to assume that ticket splitting is really going to come back in a big way. And there’s a lot of evidence to believe it will: The Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, for instance, is running something like 15 points ahead of Trump in that state.

You mention that ticket splitting worked in 1996, but a lot has changed in American politics since then. Could the polling be missing something here? Is there a chance that voters make much more of their judgment based on the presidency alone than they used to?

Michele Swers

There’s lots of political science research that shows politics is much more nationalized than it was just a few decades ago. That probably has to do with the fact that the way you get your information has changed. Twenty years ago — when there weren’t a bunch of competing cable stations, and you had more local news and local TV — if you were a House member you could get the coverage of your character, of the bill you passed for your home district, or of you in parades or whatever.

Now, with there being so much more national coverage and the local papers dying out, it’s much more ideological. Since the coverage of candidates is much more nationalized, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to say, “Look, I’m different from my party’s presidential nominee.” [Emory political scientist] Alan Abramowitz, for instance, is really focused on the idea that polarization and nationalization is really everything right now.

I think the rise of outside spending probably works in much of the same way. If I am Kelly Ayotte [a moderate Republican senator from New Hampshire], I am presenting myself as someone who works across the aisle. But here comes a Super PAC with their ad running saying that Ayotte claims to support not letting people on the no-fly list or the terror suspect list buy guns, but here she is voting against all of these commonsense gun solutions. In most competitive races, especially those that could flip control of the majority, the candidates are going to get outspent by these national spending groups. If they’re able to tie [the Republicans] to Trump, it likely helps the Democrats in that race as more things spiral out of control for him.

Jeff Stein

That’s the thing I keep wrestling with. I go out and talk to all of these people who study the House races carefully, and they all suggest that the math just doesn’t add up — that there’s no way Democrats have a shot.

Michele Swers

I think with the House, there are so many factors baked in that it’s hard to know which will matter most. I think redistricting plays a role — after the 2010 midterm election, when Republicans took back control of the House, they also won full control of a lot of state legislatures and governors seats, which allowed them to have full control over redistricting of many more House seats. Democrats really need to win back more state legislatures if they want to have more influence on the redistricting process after the 2020 census.

Then there’s the issue of sorting. There’s just a ton of wasted Democratic votes — in Virginia, Republicans can have a large advantage in House seats even if the state goes blue overall in the presidential elections. Because Democrats are so packed into the cities, they just have more wasted votes if their House candidates win by larger margins than Republican House candidates.

You start by saying: How many seats are Republicans holding that Obama won, and how many seats are Democrats holding that Mitt Romney won? Democrats are holding hardly any seats won by Romney, so they should be able to move up from there. But it doesn’t look, right now, like they’ll pick up that many of the seats Obama won. Most predictions show them winning 10 to 15 seats.

Take [New York Republican Rep. John] Katko. He seems to be holding his own there — it feels like if there was about to be a wave and the House would flip, Democrats should win that kind of race. But it doesn’t look like Katko’s going to lose.

What the Democratic House caucus might look like in 2017

Party Symbols

Jeff Stein

What about on the Democratic side? How will the election shift the overall makeup of their caucus?

Michele Swers

The House Democratic Caucus, in general, has developed a much more liberal core. And you now have a more demographically diverse set of members, so there are a lot more minorities, a lot more women in the caucus. White male Democrats are a minority at this point.

That’s changed the tenor. You obviously don’t have the conservative Southern Democrats anymore, and in that way it’s moved the dynamics in a more liberal direction. So, for example, the Democrats are whole hog in favor of gun control now, whereas in 2000 they thought Al Gore lost West Virginia because of it.

But I think, come next year, the House Democratic Caucus will probably be about as progressive and maybe less so. If Democrats win 10 to 15 seats, you may get a few more people who are in districts that are a little less liberal — districts that have more working-class whites, for example.

In Maine, for instance, one district is very urban and the other is very rural. And Democrats have an outside shot at that rural seat. Those seats on the margin will be more moderate, and the members will probably feel the need to lean conservative. Even if, as a whole, the Democratic caucus is as progressive as it has ever been, because they’ve suffered so many losses and are mostly left with an urban core.

Jeff Stein

Right, the bigger the Democratic caucus is, the more likely it is to contain moderates.

Michele Swers

The last time Democrats had a caucus more like that was right before they lost their majority in 2010. And so you saw Nancy Pelosi have within her leadership members like John Spratt of South Carolina, to try and balance that and be the voice of the moderate Democrats, and stop legislation that pulls the party too far in one direction.

Trump is so overwhelming right now that you don’t recognize that some Democrats won’t want to embrace Hillary Clinton, especially come 2018. Because the president’s party always loses seats in the midterm elections, and there’s going to be a lot of red-state Democratic senators up for election very soon — Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. And they’re probably going to want to create some distance between themselves and the Clinton administration.

Jeff Stein

We started this conversation by talking about how the nationalization of American politics may give Democrats a real shot at the House this year that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

But it seems like those same forces are likely to make life extremely difficult for them in 2018.

Michele Swers

Yes, exactly. There will be a lot of Democrats up for reelection in red states that year. Usually, the president’s party does very poorly in midterm elections. Obama had a couple of very difficult midterms, and it seems like Hillary Clinton would too, whether Democrats take back the House this year or not.

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