Divisions among House Republicans have been openly on display this week as Representative Kevin McCarthy failed to win election as speaker in 11 consecutive ballots across three days.
A minority of McCarthy’s own party colleagues have refused to vote for him and some have been highly critical of the California Republican, while some who back McCarthy have taken aim at his detractors.
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who supports McCarthy, said on Wednesday that she was “furious” with her colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus who had refused to return McCarthy.
Representative Scott Perry, chair of the Freedom Caucus, invoked the late President Ronald Reagan on Twitter on Thursday, suggesting it was necessary to “trust but verify” any potential deal on speakership, utilizing a phrase Reagan often used about the Soviet Union.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich also weighed in when he described McCarthy’s opponents as taking “the conference hostage” and appeared to compare them to “terrorists” in a Fox News appearance on Tuesday.
The House will reconvene at noon on Friday without a clear path to choosing the next speaker and with some, including Representative Matt Gaetz, implacably opposed to McCarthy. These divisions came after disappointing midterm election results.
In an op-ed for Newsweek published on Thursday, Gingrich said House Republicans “seem to be absorbed in fighting.” He also pointed to the 1855 election for speaker that took 133 ballots and described the parties at that time as “disintegrating under the pressures of slavery and anti-slavery bitterness, which ultimately led to the Civil War.”
The former speaker also wrote that the House “seems in crisis” as his party heads into a potentially divisive presidential nominating season.
The modern Republican Party is divided, but it may not be on the brink of disintegration.
A Poor Year for Republicans
Republicans control only a narrow majority in the House and just four GOP members can deny McCarthy the speaker’s gavel by voting against him. The party also failed to take the Senate in the November midterms despite high expectations of success.
Robert Singh, a professor at the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, told Newsweek ahead of Friday’s speaker ballots that while the “venom” in current GOP discourse is real, he didn’t believe there was a long-term threat to the party itself.
“It’s been a poor year overall for the party—the legacy of January 6, Trump’s ongoing presence and divisiveness, the failure to do better in the House and to achieve control of the Senate in the 2022 midterms, and now the unprecedented struggles over selection a speaker,” Singh said.
“All of this is bad for the Republican brand,” he said. “Moreover, it gives a free pass to President Biden and the Democrats when, arguably, there is plenty to criticize and exploit politically.”
However, Singh explained that “some perspective is necessary.”
“McCarthy’s troubles are embarrassing and problematic,” he said. “But we are looking at about twenty GOP lawmakers who are causing trouble here.”
“They are not a coherent group—some are simply ‘anti-establishment’ Republicans, some are extremists, some are personally antipathetic to McCarthy,” Singh said, explaining that more than 90 percent of the Republican conference in the House “have supported him in each of 11 ballots.”
“Were the divisions wider, let alone 50-50, then there would be reason to wonder whether the party can survive. But that isn’t the case,” Singh said.
The divide between the two factions in the House Republican Conference may be “more personal than ideological”, according to Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London’s Center on US Politics.
“It’s almost fair to say that the GOP is now operating de facto as two parties. The very public spat between the ‘establishment’ and the right-wing ‘rebels’ shows just how far the Republican Party has been unraveled since the 2022 midterms, if not before,” Gift told Newsweek.
“Perhaps the most notable aspect of the speaker fiasco is that the divide seems more personal than ideological, and that both sides seem completely fine with airing their dirty laundry on live TV,” he said.
“By any reasonable definition, Kevin McCarthy would be considered one of the most conservative speakers in the history of the US House. From the Trump years until now, he’s contorted himself into a pretzel trying to accommodate the fringes of his party,” Gift added .
“And yet, even that isn’t enough for the likes of Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, who’ve had zero qualms about attacking their would-be leader publicly,” he said.
It remains to be seen if the House GOP will strike a deal to make McCarthy speaker or if another candidate will fill that role, but Singh pointed to the fact that divisions within parties are not new.
“Both prior GOP Speakers—John Boehner and Paul Ryan—were brought down by internal opposition within the party,” he said. “Yet on substance, there is not a great deal dividing the party in terms of issues.”
“As much as anything, this is a matter of style and personality as anything remotely regarding ideology. There is a manifest tension between the ‘establishment’ and the Trump wings, but on matters from taxes and defense spending to China, little separates them, ” Singh said.
‘Venom and Vituperation’
Even though the long-term future of the Republican may not be at risk, the current rhetoric is venomous, according to political scientists.
“In a two-party system as stable as America’s, internal spats inevitably attract attention,” Singh told Newsweek. “We’ve seen this time and again with both parties at different points in history. But while the venom and vituperation are real, the extent to which they are likely to render the Republicans asunder seems much more modest.”
Gift told Newsweek that “it’s possible to overestimate how much this intra-party rift will affect Republicans’ approach on Capitol Hill over the next two years. The one aspiration that units the whole party: making Joe Biden a one-term president.”
More clashes between Republicans in the House may be expected as members proceed to a 12th ballot. More ballots may be necessary and the business of the House cannot properly begin until a speaker is chosen.