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The hard-right wing of House GOP poised to grow even larger next year

Super Tuesday dealt another blow to the already shrinking bloc of House Republicans who prefer governance over political performance art, as several below-the-radar races delivered victories for the hard-right faction.

In Alabama, after redistricting thrust two incumbent Republicans into the same district, Rep. Barry Moore defeated Rep. Jerry L. Carl despite getting outspent by a more than 2-to-1 margin, relying on his ultraconservative credentials to topple Carl’s establishment-backed campaign.

In Texas, GOP primary voters nominated an election-denying first-time candidate who has promoted conspiracy theories to replace retiring Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), a genial doctor who is a member of the establishment-friendly Republican Governance Group.

A state representative with overwhelming backing from local Fort Worth GOP leaders got forced into a runoff election against a little-known businessman touting the endorsement of the state’s controversial attorney general. And Rep. Rep. Tony Gonzales (R), who was censured last year by the Texas GOP for dabbling in bipartisan dealmaking in the Capitol, also got forced into a runoff against a firearms manufacturer who now runs a YouTube channel focused on far-right ideology.

And while Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) won, he faced his first stiff primary challenge since his initial win in 2010, narrowly edging out a state legislator who was angry that Womack voted against Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a MAGA darling, during the House speaker votes in October.

These are not the races that will determine whether Republicans or Democrats hold the majority, so little attention gets paid to them by political operatives and the media.

But, as the past 14 months has demonstrated, these races are very critical in determining whether House Republicans can build a majority that will actually be able to govern in a somewhat normal fashion.

Every time a reliable Republican ally of leadership retires, the door opens for someone to mount an insurgent campaign that has little to do with legislation and a lot to do with theatrical promises of kicking down doors in Congress.

As Republicans discovered in early January 2023, when it took 15 rounds of voting to craft enough unity to elect a House speaker, the party now has dozens of lawmakers who come from safe seats and will happily oppose must-pass bills to get attention from conservative media and social media sites for their ideological purity.

It’s left their conference virtually ungovernable, regularly relying on a vast number of Democrats to bail out House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) whenever he has to pass funding to keep the government open or avoid fiscal calamities such as defaulting on the national debt.

On Wednesday, Johnson could only deliver 132 votes from his side of the aisle and needed 207 Democrats to pass a massive $459 billion plan funding about 30 percent of the federal government.

The bill had to pass on a fast-track calendar that required a two-thirds majority — about 290 votes if all members vote — because a rump group of hard-right Republicans will not vote for the procedural step required to establish rules of debate for legislation that would allow a simple majority for passage.

With only two votes to spare from his side of the aisle, Johnson has been left almost powerless in negotiations as Democrats often know their votes will be decisive to passing something.

“We are team normal. House Democrats are team normal,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), the third-ranked Democrat in House leadership, told reporters early Wednesday, referencing the former president and now presumptive 2024 presidential nominee as the political engine driving the GOP chaos. “House Republicans and Donald Trump are team extreme.”

House Republican leaders have long stated that their goal in November is not just to retain the majority, but also to grow the majority in a bid to water down the influence of the right-wing faction that has caused such headaches this year.

“We’ve had days where a few people were out, whether it was a missed flight or an illness, or whatever the reason. We didn’t have a functioning majority some days because you didn’t have enough people here,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Wednesday in a brief interview.

“If we can grow the majority, you don’t have those kind of challenges as much,” Scalise added.

Should Trump win the presidency, that might lead to its own forced unity, as the most troublesome Republicans often tend to politically genuflect toward his wishes, while his most conservative legislative goals probably would hinge on a dozen or so GOP lawmakers in swing districts.

And if Biden wins reelection, Democrats stand a pretty good chance of flipping the House majority and turning the GOP minority into a far less relevant group.

But, in terms of those Republicans hoping to see a more traditional group of lawmakers taking charge, Tuesday did not offer much hope.

And with dozens of Republicans deciding to retire from relatively safe seats, the upcoming primaries the rest of this spring and summer will greatly shape whether Republicans can get more functional.

The Burgess seat, in the outer suburbs and exurbs around Dallas, offered perhaps the sharpest contrast in current style and its future style.

For more than 20 years, Burgess has voted quite conservatively but rarely sought the spotlight, never politically threatening any of the handful of GOP speakers he served under. When he announced his retirement, a sprawling field from across the Republican spectrum jumped into the race, including Scott Armey, son of the former House majority leader Dick Armey, and John Huffman, a socially conservative mayor backed by former governor Rick Perry.

But Brandon Gill, 30, the son-in-law of right-wing author Dinesh D’Souza, who has promoted 2020 election conspiracy theories, blew away that field and won the nomination with almost 60 percent of the vote, eliminating the need for a runoff.

Before mentioning any policy position, Gill’s website tell viewers two key details: “Endorsed by President Donald J. Trump & Sen. Ted Cruz.”

A group of establishment-aligned megadonors funded a pair of super PACs that dropped about $2 million in negative ads on Gill’s campaign, to no avail. One of those PACs spent almost $650,000 on negative ads in Alabama against Moore, who did not even raise that much money in this election cycle.

Meanwhile, Carl used his post on the influential Appropriations Committee to wrack up more than $2 million in campaign funds since the start of 2023. His financial backers included two fellow GOP congressmen from Alabama, Mike D. Rogers, chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, and Dale W. Strong, a freshman.

Local political experts noted that Carl had a larger share of his original district in the newly drawn seat, giving him an edge. Some polls gave him the lead. But Moore had the outrage edge, able to distinguish himself as the iconoclast who would shout from the hilltops. In December, he was the only lawmaker from Alabama to vote against the annual Pentagon policy bill, which provided big money for the defense bases located in the state.

He cited obscure climate change policy and other culture war issues as reason for his opposition.

Another target for the GOP establishment super PACs was Mark Harris of North Carolina, whose 2018 congressional campaign was found to have committed voter fraud. When another arch-conservative, Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), decided to run for state attorney general, Harris jumped into the race.

Despite $2 million worth of negative ads from the super PACs, Harris narrowly crossed the 30 percent threshold he needed under North Carolina law to claim the nomination, for a district in which the GOP nomination is tantamount to victory in November.

In Texas, the runoff for the Fort Worth-area House seat could prove to be one of the biggest splits in terms of GOP political personality, depending on the outcome.

Retiring Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), who served as the city’s mayor before winning her House seat in 1996, has climbed the congressional ladder to the top of the Appropriations Committee. She is an amiable character who objected to Jordan’s bid for speaker and regularly secures bipartisan spending bills.

The pillars of that region came together behind state Rep. Craig Goldman (R), a younger 11-year veteran of Austin politics. But then came John O’Shea, a construction company owner who is a disciple of Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Goldman ended Tuesday in first place, about 18 percentage points ahead of O’Shea but a bit below the majority threshold to avoid a runoff.

Now he must face O’Shea in a runoff, when only the most rabid voters turn out, making the outcome uncertain.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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