Following the Republican failure to repeal and replace Obamacare last week, President Trump took aim at the House Freedom Caucus. He has called the group an obstacle to conservative goals and even called for Republican primary challenges against them in the next elections.
Most members represent solidly conservative districts, and few faced a tough primary challenger in 2016. The figure below plots the ideological positions of House Republicans in the past Congress. As you can see, the Freedom Caucus is clearly the right wing of the party, which puts them in a good position to survive a contested primary.
It’s hard to imagine that very many of these lawmakers could be outflanked by more conservative candidates, and primary voters generally favor ideologically extreme candidates. That reduces the credibility of Trump’s threats.
The Freedom Caucus is organized in a way that fortifies its resistance
The House has hundreds of caucuses and a rich history of organized legislative blocs — but the Freedom Caucus is a particularly strong institution. It has an elected hierarchy of faction leaders and, thanks to a tiered dues system, several full-time staffers coordinate their legislative actions. Strict bylaws also help unify the group. New caucus candidates must be vetted, and the caucus can boot members from the group. If 80 percent of the bloc agrees on a policy position, the whole group is required to stand as a united front. These features make it much harder to pick off individual faction members.
The Freedom Caucus gets outside political support — which frees it from relying on Republican Party coffers
In a series of working papers, I argue that groups such as the Freedom Caucus excel at appealing to niche markets of donors and political activists. The group has worked hard to develop its own war chest with the support of major players in conservative politics (such as the Koch Industries Inc. PAC). The House Freedom Fund brought in about $1.4 million during the past election cycle. That enables Freedom Caucus leaders to insulate their members from Republican establishment threats to pull funds.
What’s more, these donations are probably a fraction of the support offered by a complicated and coordinated network of conservative activists. For example, the Freedom Caucus has found a strong ally in Heritage Action for America — for good reason.
The figure below shows the Heritage Action Scores of House Republicans between 2011 and 2016, broken down along critical fault lines within the party. These scores show how often a lawmaker advances the interest group’s position on key votes. Heritage routinely circulates these scores among a broad network of conservative activists.
We shouldn’t be surprised that, after Trump’s Twitter threats, Heritage Action chief executive Mike Needham launched a full-throated defense of the Freedom Caucus. Or that the Daily Signal, the Heritage Foundation’s digital news platform, ran a piece titled “Freedom Caucus Is an Ally, Not an Enemy in Draining the Swamp.” The Freedom Caucus was built to win the support of powerful outside groups — and their 13,000 trained activists — so that it can aggressively advance its conservative agenda without fear of retribution.
Nor should we be surprised when members of the centrist Main Street Partnership, which includes the informal Tuesday Group, reject any move to bridge the gap between warring Republican factions. The two blocs are distinct types of Republicans, and represent very different constituencies within the GOP coalition.
Will the House Freedom Caucus fall in line?
The president may be able to unseat at least a few House Republicans. Trump’s willingness to directly engage his 27.2 million Twitter followers puts us in uncharted waters. Moreover, the Freedom Caucus isn’t impervious to defection within its own ranks; Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) quit the faction last weekend, citing the group’s unbending obstructionist positions.
But more popular presidents have tried and failed to put the lean on their congressional co-partisans. The Freedom Caucus can use a strong organization — embedded within a network of sympathetic, well-funded activists — to counteract many of the usual tools available to discipline unruly members. The conservative faction has carved out real influence in House politics, and is unlikely to fold as Trump continues to push forward with his legislative agenda.
Andrew Clarke is a PhD candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. As of July, he will be an assistant professor of government and law at Lafayette College. Find him on Twitter @AndrewJClarke2.