Politics

In the Wild West House, a group of ‘midterm mustangs’ keep establishment Republicans on their toes

Jonathan Strong Contributor
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If Speaker John Boehner’s House is the frontier of Congresses, with a band of cowboy congressional leaders trying to break in 87 new horses, who do you picture as the bucking stallions? Would it be new lawmakers representing the reddest of red districts, in states like Mississippi, Texas and Utah? How about freshmen representing districts deep in Democratic territory — that not only President Obama, but Sen. John Kerry won in his campaign for president in 2004?

Consider this study in contrasts:

Freshmen Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee represents Mississippi’s 1st District, where John McCain won 62 percent of the vote in 2008 and George W. Bush won 62 percent in 2004. Cook Political Report rates it R+14. Nunnelee beat fluke Democratic Rep. Travis Childers who’d won by splitting Republican opposition. The district had been in Republican hands for 14 years.

But in a key amendment vote pushed by House conservatives — and vigorously opposed by GOP leaders — to cut $22 billion more from the continuing resolution (CR) spending bill on Friday, Nunnelee voted no.

Meanwhile, freshman Republican Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle represents New York’s 25th District, where President Obama won with 56 percent of the vote. John Kerry and Al Gore won there, too. Cook Political Report rates it a D+3. But on the conservative spending amendment, Buerkle voted yes, potentially placing her in peril in her blue district.

As different as Nunnelee’s and Buerkle’s districts are, so were the ways they came to Washington, which may help explain their votes, insiders say.

Nunnelee won a competitive primary, besting Tea Party favorite Angela McGlowan, who announced her candidacy at the National Tea Party Forum. In the general election, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the party leadership’s campaign arm, spent almost $1 million helping Nunnelee win.

In contrast, Buerkle got hardly any help from the NRCC: $85,000. None of the expert political handicappers thought she would win. But when she was in the trenches running against former Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei, Sarah Palin anointed Buerkle a “mama grizzly.” Helped by Tea Party activists, Buerkle somehow overcame David and Goliath odds (Maffei outraised her $2.7 million to $552,000) and won on Nov. 2.

Everyone knows the 87 freshmen Republicans elected to the House in a wave of Tea Party energy are looking for a fight on spending cuts.

As the CR was being written, the group angrily blew up discussions and forced much deeper cuts. On the floor, they helped defeat a duplicate fighter jet engine backed by none other than House Speaker John Boehner.

But while one might expect the ideological fervor of the Tea Party would come mostly from lawmakers representing solidly red districts, GOP insiders say a contingent of blue staters are some of the most feisty combatants in backroom meetings.

Call them the midterm mustangs, unbroken by the party structure.

Rep. Allen West, whose Florida beachfront district also went for Obama, Kerry and Gore, is another member of the group. Like Buerkle, the NRCC gave West $85,000.

Despite his deep blue district, he gave the keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference and told the Weekly Standard in 2009: “There are three words I hate to hear used. I hate ‘big tent.’ I hate ‘inclusiveness.’ And I hate ‘outreach.’ I think you stand on the principles that make you great, which transcend everybody in America, and people will come to it.”

“They got here without Boehner’s help and they know it. The NRCC didn’t back them, so they’ve got a chip on their shoulder already. Leadership comes to them and they want to know, ‘Where the hell were you a year ago?’” said a GOP House aide.

Freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold beat a 30-year incumbent Nov. 2 in what can only be described as a miracle. As the “Almanac of American Politics” put it, Farenthold’s “claim to fame in the campaign was a photo that surfaced of him wearing duck pajamas and posing with a scantily clad woman.”

The NRCC gave Farenthold, a former radio host, a whopping zero dollars. His district is rated R+2 by the Cook Political Report, but Obama won there with 53 percent and Gore did, too.

Farenthold voted for the conservative amendment to cut more funding from the CR and to cut funding for the second engine for the F-35 jet fighter.

Freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling, Illinois Republican, is in a D+3 district that Obama, Kerry and Gore all won with 56, 51 and 54 percent, respectively. He voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act, explaining to The Daily Caller that with only a few minutes of debate, he “went with his gut” and sided with liberty.

Crucially, for this group of improbable lawmakers, their conservative votes are not simply about flipping the bird at Washington insiders who didn’t help them when they were nobodies.

Instead, it’s all about survival.

Even in their blue districts, many of them only won with the help of Tea Party activists manning their phone banks and knocking on doors. As the saying goes, you dance with the one who brought you. Otherwise, their core base of support could disappear, or even fight against them. These members have to balance sticking to their principles to avoid the wrath of the Tea Party with the natural priorities of their districts.

“I was told, ‘Hey, you know what, if you go against the things we’ve sent you there for, we’re going to work just as hard to get you out.’,” Schilling said Feb. 13 on “Meet the Press.”

And already, Buerkle faced a nasty letter in the local paper when, unlike Schilling, she voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act. David Andrew Gay, a local conservative activist who dropped out of the primary to back Buerkle, responded by writing in the Syracuse Post-Standard that “Buerkle and other ‘Tea Party Caucus’ representatives campaigned on promises to obey the Constitution and restore constitutional rights … I hereby retract my endorsement and support of Ann Marie Buerkle.”

The political advantages of rebellion include the historically low approval ratings of Congress. “The question is: How do I survive? It ain’t always standing next to John Boehner and saying, ‘Good job, boss,’” the GOP House aide said, “everyone’s got different agendas.” Additionally, many of these new members haven’t secured veteran political hands to explain how potent a single vote on, say, defunding Planned Parenthood can be in their opponents’ hands.

Freshman Republican Chip Cravaak of Minnesota beat powerful Democratic chairman Jim Oberstar with no help from the NRCC. Obama and Kerry won his district. “It’s a miracle what we’ve done,” he said in the bask of victory.

Freshman Rep. Renee Ellmers beat Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge with no help from the NRCC. Obama won her district with 52 percent. She voted for the conservative spending cuts amendment.

Freshman Rep. Joe Walsh shockingly beat former Congresswoman Melissa Bean in Illinois. Obama won his district with 56 percent of the vote. Zero dollars from the NRCC helped him do it. He voted for the extra spending cuts, too.

In all, there are 35 freshmen in districts that either Obama, Kerry or Gore won, 32 where Obama won, and eight where all three Democratic presidential candidates won.

There are almost two dozen new members who didn’t get a cent from the NRCC.

These are the midterm mustangs, and John Boehner is struggling to break them in.

Ed. note: This article has been corrected. It was Rep. Tim Scott, not Rep. Allen West, who privately urged colleagues to vote against the Patriot Act.