With retirements and electoral defeats threatening to decimate the ranks of pragmatic, center-right House Republicans, the conservative House Freedom Caucus is poised to gain power in the GOP caucus — and have a crucial say as to who runs it next year.
Its first show of strength: The election of a House Republican leader later this year to replace outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
There are currently 237 Republicans in the House, a total that does not include four seats left vacant by GOP resignations. There are about 35 to 40 Freedom Caucus members. If the Republican numbers shrink after the November elections, as is widely expected, those members would have a bigger say in GOP matters.
They have no favored candidate yet to replace Ryan, who announced Wednesday that he would not seek re-election in 2018. At least 43 Republicans have said they are leaving the House, because of retirement, resignation or to run for another office.
Many are in districts Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election or in districts narrowly won by President Donald Trump.
Freedom Caucus members generally come from deeply conservative districts, which are unlikely to flip even if Democrats enjoy a strong election season as history and current polling suggests.
The Freedom Caucus, which played a significant role in the retirement of former Speaker John Boehner in 2015 and helped stop Kevin McCarthy from succeeding him, knows it can help elect a leader that is at least as friendly as Ryan was to its interests.
“If we control enough votes to veto who the next speaker is going to be, do you think it will be someone who engages less with the Freedom Caucus?” asked Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the caucus chairman.
California’s McCarthy, the majority leader, and Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana are the main contenders for the top job, most Republicans acknowledged Wednesday. McCarthy is seen as having the easiest path to the position.
Meadows also mentioned Utah’s Rob Bishop, a former state speaker and currently House Natural Resources chairman, as a potential dark horse candidate.
No member of the Freedom Caucus, which was founded in 2015, has held a leadership post within the conference. Meadows said Wednesday he is not interested in a leadership position.
“It’s not on my bucket list. It’s not my desire to run for a leadership position,” he said. “I’m all focused on policy and trying to get policy done.”
But the Freedom Caucus could certainly leverage its votes to put one of its own in a leadership position or secure other concessions, such as the promise of open amendment processes or more work through committees. The caucus is angry over how recent spending bills were crafted and passed.
“Whoever is the next speaker, what matters most, I think it's time for a complete reset of our leadership. Congress' approval ratings are who knows how low,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “It's time for a reset and a refocus on one primary objective: Doing what the American people elected us to do, doing what we told them we were going to do.”