Partisan gerrymandering of 2012 locked in the Republican electoral gains of 2010. In redrawing congressional districts following the census, the GOP focused its efforts on protecting House incumbents – making their districts as red as possible. Last November, this redistricting effort produced a shocking subversion of representative democracy. In the popular vote, almost 1.4 million more Americans cast their votes for Democratic House candidates than voted for Republicans. But Republicans maintained a commanding majority in the House. “Gerrymandering saved them,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Today, the number of true swing districts in the House is vanishingly small. Only 17 Republicans won in districts that Barack Obama also carried. Meanwhile, the number of what elections-data savant Nate Silver calls “landslide districts” – districts that are 20-plus points more Republican than the nation at large – has swelled to 125, up from 92 just a decade ago.
Members from these über-safe districts don’t fear the challenge posed by a mainstream Democrat in the general election. They dread a well-funded primary opponent running to their right. “You’ve got very small numbers of people who vote in GOP primaries,” says Bartlett, who served in the Reagan administration. “It doesn’t take very many of these Tea Party people to show up to find out you’re on your ass.”
To keep this threat fresh in members’ minds, the Club for Growth recently launched a campaign called “Primary My Congressman!” that seeks to oust centrist Republicans from safe seats – and replace them with the hardest of the hardcore. “The Club for Growth is a cancer on the Republican Party,” said Steve LaTourette, a recently retired moderate House Republican from Ohio. “The only thing that grows when the Club for Growth gets involved is the number of Democrats in office.”
The chaos now roiling the House is, in many ways, a battle between the two most powerful GOP party bosses – Karl Rove and Jim DeMint. For Rove, the activists of the Republican base have always been useful rubes. Republicans in the Rove school campaign on wedge issues that rally grassroots Republicans to the polls. But once these politicians get to Washington, they shift to fight for the interests of the party’s financial backers. In the emerging party of DeMint, however, the base that Rove scorns is everything. Only the daily pressure of grassroots activists, DeMint believes, can force Republicans to deliver in Washington on the smallgovernment promises they make to their constituents back home.
These two schools of governing can’t, ultimately, be reconciled. The DeMint school believes in combat, and in turning every possible government choke point into a high-stakes confrontation: You win by standing on principle, refusing to yield and letting the chips fall where they may. As Cruz put it to activists in Dallas, “If you have an impasse, one side or the other has to blink. How do we win? Don’t blink.”
“The elites have different agendas than the rank and file,” says Bartlett, the former Reagan official. “Your average Tea Party people may be content to have gridlock forever, but the money people – the corporations, the lobbyists – they need stuff.” And people in that camp have a lot riding on John Boehner and Eric Cantor.