Republicans are in strong position to win back control of the House of Representatives in 2022. They are united in their drive to defeat President Biden’s agenda and their message to voters that Democratic policies are driving record inflation. But in recent weeks some in the right wing of the party have openly attacked their GOP colleagues, and in some cases even threatened to defeat them in primaries.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., recently admitted that out-of-line rhetoric from his own members is a distraction.
“It’s things that we would not want to deal with, it is things the American people want to focus on — stopping inflation, gas prices and others. And anything that deviates from that causes problems,” he said about the most recent controversy ignited by Colorado GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert. Boebert made Islamophobic comments about Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim. A phone call pushed by McCarthy between the two failed to diffuse the situation, and Boebert essentially doubled down on her comments when Omar pressed for a public apology.
The Boebert controversy exposed the split inside the GOP conference about the divisive comments when an ally of the Coloradan began attacking a fellow Republican.
Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., was heckled on social media by a fellow Republican, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who said she wasn’t a true conservative after she took issue with Boebert’s rhetoric. Greene also threatened to back a primary challenge in Mace’s reelection race.
Mace told NPR she recently traveled with a group of Democrats overseas and said working across the aisle is what voters in her competitive district want to see from lawmakers in Washington.
“When we are unified in this country, when we work across the aisle, truly together in a bipartisan way, we are stronger on the world stage and the world is safer for it. And that’s where all of our focus should be and that’s where my focus will be,” Mace said.
And she warned extreme rhetoric can turn off the voters her party needs to win over.
“These are big signs of big momentum on our side but we can only win if we communicate with moderates and independents across the board going into next year,” Mace added.
For months, tensions in the conference have simmered. Some in the right wing of the House GOP conference have argued that those House Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill last month should lose their committee assignments, or face other consequences.
Boebert complained recently about those GOP members who helped negotiate a deal in the Senate to avoid default on the nation’s credit limit. She labeled them “RINOs” — Republicans in name only.
“Many RINOs run as conservatives and legislate like Pelosi, let me tell you, the American people will remember this,” Boebert said, comparing fellow GOP members to the House speaker in a video posted on social media.
Former President Donald Trump regularly issues statements attacking those Republicans in the Senate who agreed to a deal to avoid a catastrophic default or supported any piece of Biden’s agenda. In some cases he is actively backing primary challenges against those GOP lawmakers he views as disloyal, including those who backed impeachment earlier this year. Trump publicly endorsed Boebert in a statement on Wednesday, saying she was a “a fighter against the Loser RINOs and Radical Democrats.”
McCarthy has said the conference will address issues internally and has largely avoided talking publicly about the tensions. The minority leader, who hopes to get the gavel next Congress, continues to walk a fine line between those in the far right who press for total opposition to any issue that’s part of the Biden agenda, and those who say they want to find common ground on issues voters care about back home, like fixing roads and bridges.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who was one of the 13 House GOP members who backed the infrastructure bill last month, agreed about the need to tone things down.
“Teams don’t win when they are fighting each other and some people need to know there’s consequences,” Bacon, a former Air Force commander, told NPR. He thinks his party can win 30-50 seats next fall, but not if they don’t get past the internal feuds.
Behind the scenes, Bacon says McCarthy recently sent a message to the entire conference: stop sniping at each other. Bacon wants the focus to be on issues and thinks it’s important to say what policies his party will pursue. But he also says it’s also important they be upfront about the limits of divided government if they do retake the House.
“One thing we’ve done in the past is we’ve overpromised,” he said.
McCarthy created several task forces that have developed policy plans for what Republicans will do it they retake the majority
“We will tackle inflation, we will secure our border, we will bring gasoline prices down and we will focus on the economy,” McCarthy told reporters recently.
But McCarthy continues to be tripped up regularly by some in the far right wing. These members either throw out racist rhetoric or misinformation about Democrats or publicly question his leadership or loyalty to Trump. Any move to discipline them could mean he loses their votes to be elected speaker if the GOP does win enough seats in next year’s midterms.
Bacon outperformed Trump in his Nebraska district in 2020 and he said the party doesn’t have to be defined entirely by the former president.
“I don’t think we should be the Trump-a-phobe party or the Trump-a-phile party,” he said. He added he wants the party to get away from tagging someone as totally in line with the former president or a totally against.
Talking about Trump, Bacon said, “He did well on working on the border, he did well with USMCA, so there’s thing we can agree on — but we can also say we don’t agree with the name-calling,” he said, mentioning Trump’s recent disparagement of the late General Colin Powell, who was a Republican.
Biden’s approval ratings are currently at the lowest point of his presidency. Republicans on Capitol Hill feel confident they are on a glide path to taking back the House, but most rank and file want to focus on hammering the message on the issue of inflation, instead of hammering each other.