Why are the Republicans so split, and what can they do to change that?

Opinion by Winston Shi
March 10, 2015, 9:30 p.m.

Why are the Republicans so split, and what can they do to change that?

Last week, I discussed why the Democratic Party showed such solidarity behind Hillary Clinton. But the Republicans control Congress, and right now solidarity is not something that the GOP can lay claim to — an issue that will continue to affect them for the rest of the Obama Administration. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner isn’t in any serious danger of losing his job, but after he allowed a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to extend funding for the Department of Homeland Security without any strings attached, many on his right flank are beginning to grumble.

Let’s first take a look at whether the Republicans are actually that divided. The final numbers certainly look staggering. In fact, a majority of the Republican caucus voted against the Speaker: Only 75 Republicans voted yes for the funding bill, as opposed to 167 nays. Contrast this with the Democrats: Every single Democrat voted yes. But if you step back and look at the bigger picture, things do not look that bleak for the Republican leadership.

Back when the funding battle was at its peak, only 52 Republicans broke ranks. That’s a lot, to be sure, but all of them could abstain and the Republicans would still have a majority. The final tally was only lopsided because when Democrats agreed to support a new bill, moderate Republicans could vote against the final bill (and score brownie points with the far right) without endangering it at all. The early, 52-defection vote is a better picture of how House Republicans really think.

Today’s House features approximately 200 mainstream Republicans that will vote with the Speaker when the chips are down, 50 Tea Partiers that will try to block moderate action on hot-button issues and 188 Democrats that are mostly united. Despite last week’s setback, that’s a governing majority.


Speaker Boehner is not going away anytime soon, but he cannot escape the fact that so many members of his caucus feel the need to appeal to the far right. As the Founding Fathers intended, House members constantly operate with the prospect of another election hanging over their heads. But elections present politicians with a paradox. The existence of both national (Presidential) and local (state and district) elections forces political parties to impose a nationwide, centrist paradigm on an assortment of different states.

Looking at the big picture, in Congress, electability is tied to moderation: The Presidency is the biggest prize in politics, so national parties, led by pragmatists like Boehner, will always trend toward positions that can garner about half the electoral vote. But certain states and districts will be far more conservative than the dividing line, and others will be far more liberal. Partisan primaries expose national party-backed, moderate politicians to far-right and far-left ideologues within their own voter blocs. And as we’ve seen with the Tea Party, as the overall GOP majority in a Congressional district increases, the number of Tea Party voters typically increases as well, and moderates’ claims to electability in the general election become less compelling.

Consequently, there is not really a “safe seat” in the House of Representatives. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor might have been one of the most powerful conservatives in America, but after crashing and burning in his heavily Republican district primary, he didn’t even make it to the general election, which he likely would have won. His district’s Republicans elected a Tea Partier, Dave Brat, instead.

We just need to contrast elections in Congress with that of the British House of Commons to see why American voting procedures are so influential. Members of Parliament in the UK are almost totally dependent on their party organization to raise funds and get elected. Without internal primaries, the various parties even go so far as to select which candidates will run in the safest seats. Consequently, MPs have to toe the national party line. American representatives, on the other hand, are not beholden to national party organizations: They can raise money independently, build their own brands and stand for election whether the national Republican organization wants them to or not.

And to be clear, internal divisions can happen to Democrats too, just like the Tea Party. In fact, there have been many times in the past when Democrats have been extremely polarized. But it is interesting to see how Democrats act in statewide and congressional races. The national Democratic organization seems to have a stronger hold on center-left and left-wing voters and donors. And as I detailed in last week’s column, they are also more ideologically unified than the Republicans at this particular point in time.

I don’t believe, as Senator Charles Schumer does, that primary elections should be eliminated. It’s important that voters select their own candidates as well as their own representatives. But as voters, we have to remember that modern politics are increasingly national. Voters might be tempted to vote specifically for candidates that can win in their district – think William F. Buckley’s famous dictum of “the rightwardmost viable candidate” – but electing Republicans or Democrats to Congress is only a means to an end.

The point of politics is to win, and while the far left and the far right in Congress can obstruct legislation, they are too weak to actually pass it. For all their historical squabbling, the Democrats understand that fact. But if history has taught us anything, as the presidential election gets closer, Republicans understand that too.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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