Why have so few Republican members of Congress come out against President Trump’s firing of former FBI director James B. Comey? Many political figures and journalists have called the move an “abuse of power” and worse. But few Republicans have joined them, even though Trump has said he fired Comey because of the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign had illicit ties to Russia. Of course, one explanation could be that the entire investigation is partisan and that Republicans agree with Trump that Comey should have been canned. But that’s a hard claim to make before seeing whatever evidence the FBI has gathered.
There’s another possible explanation. I found that Republicans are largely dividing on electoral lines, especially in the House. Republican members in the most staunchly conservative House districts are most likely to support Trump’s decision to fire Comey. GOP members representing blue or purple districts are more likely to vocally question the decision.
Put simply, lawmakers are reacting to what they believe their voters want to hear.
How have lawmakers reacted to Comey’s firing?
To find out, I took advantage of a New York Times compilation of each legislator’s response (or lack of response) to Trump’s decision. Only 16 percent of GOP House members have come out against the firing. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Walter Jones (R-NC) are the lone Republicans calling for an investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia.
In contrast, roughly a third of House Republicans either support the firing or issued a neutral statement in response, neither for nor against. But the largest group of Republicans, fully 50 percent, have made no statement at all as of May 15.
This hesitation about taking a position is evidence that many Republicans are in a tricky position, caught between party loyalty and concern that voters in their centrist districts may feel that Trump was not right to fire Comey.
Who opposes Trump’s decision?
To examine the possibility that these stances might come from electoral concerns, I looked at each House Republican’s performance in the previous election (which indicates how concerned they are about their next election) as well as how Hillary Clinton did in their district (which indicates how liberal or conservative their voters are as a group). For senators, I also noted which ones are running for reelection in 2018. For all Republicans, I considered their ideological stances on 2017 votes.
House Republicans are responding to their district’s political leanings
As you can see in the figures below, House Republicans who are electorally vulnerable and those who represent an ideologically moderate district are most likely to break ranks with the party by issuing an anti-firing public statement.
Roughly a third of GOP members who barely won reelection came out against Comey’s firing; just under 10 percent of the members in the safest districts did. Similarly, about 40 percent of House Republicans representing the most moderate districts (where Clinton took more than 50 percent of the vote) came out against the firing, while only two percent of Republicans in the most conservative districts did.
By contrast, House Republicans who are electorally safe and/or represent an ideologically conservative district are most likely to stay with the party and issue a pro-firing statement. More than one-fourth of the safest Republican members issued a pro-firing statement, while only 9 percent of the most vulnerable members did so. Looking at district ideology (as measured by Clinton’s share of the vote), 60 percent of Republicans in the most conservative district issued a pro-firing statement, while only 7 percent of those in the most moderate districts did so.
Senate Republicans are more independent of their constituents’ views
I found less evidence that Senate Republicans consider their constituents’ political leanings when they respond — except if they’re facing reelection. Of the nine Republican senators who must face voters in 2018, only four (44 percent) have said they support the firing; of the remaining 43 who are not running in 2018, 70 percent have said they support the firing. This may suggest that Republican senators running for reelection are thinking about their states’ independent swing voters. But it’s hard to tell with such low numbers.
How about the Democrats?
For good measure, I ran similar analyses for congressional Democrats. Even though all Democrats have come out against the firing, some have done so more strongly than others. Some have used Comey’s firing as an opportunity to call for a special prosecutor to investigate Trump’s Russian ties, while others have not.
House Democrats representing the most liberal districts are almost three times as likely to call for a special prosecutor as are those from the most moderate districts. In contrast, Senate Democrats appear to be almost the opposite of their GOP colleagues. Those facing voters in 2018 oppose Trump’s actions more strongly. Of the 24 Democratic senators up for reelection, all but one called for a special prosecutor. But of the 24 Democratic senators who are not, only three-fourths called for a special prosecutor.
Taking account of the voters before taking a position
Ultimately, congressional Republicans don’t have a lot of reason to come out against Comey’s firing. For one, there’s no pressure coming from party leaders, as both House and Senate GOP leaders have publicly supported Trump’s move. Perhaps even more important, GOP voters support Comey’s firing, too. Poll after poll suggests that even though a slight majority of Americans disapprove of Comey’s firing, opinion is sharply divided along party lines. A majority of Democrats are deeply opposed to the move. A strong majority of Republicans are sticking with Trump.
So it makes sense that the only Republicans who are coming out against Trump’s firing of Comey are the ones with a lot of Democrats in their districts. Tip O’Neill’s axiom is alive and well: All politics is still pretty darn local.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Rep. Justin Amash was calling for a special prosecutor. We regret the error.
Jeffrey Lazarus is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.