When Presidents Try to Primary Congressmen
by Rob Oldham
In Barnesville, Georgia in August 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recently elected to his second term in 1936, shared a stage with Senator Walter George, the third-term Democratic senator from Georgia. Despite being from the same party, it was no secret that Roosevelt and George had differences. The focus of the Roosevelt presidency was on bringing the United States out of the Great Depression, the economic crisis that began in 1929 and left 11 million Americans without jobs. George and other southern Democrats had been resistant to Roosevelt’s attempts to use federal programs to jumpstart the economy and put people back to work. Southern Democrats had battled with Roosevelt on legislation that would have established a national minimum wage, capped the number of hours laborers could work, and expanded low-income housing.
With the 1938 midterm elections coming up, Roosevelt was set to speak at Gordon Institute Stadium in Barnesville, where over 50,000 spectators had come to watch him. Roosevelt was supposed to be ceremonially flipping a switch that would provide power for families in rural areas. Instead, he talked about the upcoming Democratic primary race between George and his challenger, U.S. Attorney Lawrence Camp. In what has been called “one of the most unusual and dramatic moments in American political history,” Roosevelt said that he and George did not “speak the same language” on public questions and announced his support for the more liberal Camp.
The magnitude of this moment should not be understated. A sitting president was actively involving himself in a partisan rift (something that had traditionally been beneath the role of the office) and attempting to remake the party in his own image. By creating a direct link to public opinion through his public speeches and “fireside chats,” Roosevelt was, for the first time, asking the members of the public to put their confidence in the presidential agenda rather than the decentralized parties that had controlled Congress up to this point.
In 2017, that looks something like this:
That is what President Trump tweeted in response to the no-vote on the American Health Care Act (AHCA). Although the Freedom Caucus was not the only group of Republicans that did not support AHCA, their disagreement received the most public attention and forced Trump into unsuccessful last-minute negotiations with them. Trump’s tweet suggests that he might support primary challenges to the Freedom Caucus in the 2018 midterms, most likely by Republicans who would become Trump loyalists.
Comparing Trump’s tweet to Roosevelt’s battle with the southern Democrats shows some differences. The Freedom Caucus is generally aligned with the conservative-leaning policies that President Trump ran on in 2016, while Roosevelt and the southern Democrats were polar opposites. Roosevelt was a little ahead of his time in wishing for ideologically sorted parties, where Democrats would be liberal and Republicans would be conservative. That ideological sorting did not really happen until the 1970s through the 1990s, when most southern Democrats were finally replaced by Republicans and progressive Republicans became Democrats. Primarying members of the Freedom Caucus would not result in more ideological sorting, but rather a more unified and loyal Republican rank-and-file that would be more deferential to Trump and other GOP leaders.
If one defines successful congressional reform as increasing Congress’s ability to pass major pieces of legislation, then the Trump strategy makes a certain amount of sense. Here is a chart from FiveThirtyEight that shows wide ideological differences among House Republicans as well as disparities between those that work with party leaders and those that do not.
Assuming that reelection matters more than anything else to members of Congress, including the unusually principled Freedom Caucus, the Trump strategy of calling out disloyal members by name (which he did here) might force Republicans to adjust their positions to be more in line with President Trump or risk being on the losing side of a congressional primary. Trump won the Republican primary vote in 20 of the 32 Freedom Caucus districts (although some of these primaries occurred when Trump was the only remaining candidate) and he remains very popular among Republican voters with an 86 percent approval rating. Moreover, Freedom Caucus members are not invulnerable to primary challenges. In 2016, Freedom-Caucus-aligned Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) was defeated by pro-business challenger Roger Marshall, who had the support of establishment GOP groups. Marshall’s primary campaign could be a model for 2018 challenges headed by Trump.
However, it would be a tall order for President Trump to score enough successful primary challenges to prevent the Freedom Caucus from blocking his agenda again. There are 237 Republicans in the House currently, 32 of whom are Freedom Caucus members. In order to have 218 non-Freedom Caucus Republicans, Trump would have to defeat (or badly scare) 13 Freedom Caucus members in the 2018 primaries. The last time there were this many successful primary challenges was 1992, where many incumbents were implicated in the House Banking Scandal or had their districts shifted after the 1990 census.
Furthermore, it is unclear that Republicans have an appetite for a centralization of power around President Trump and his agenda. Quite simply, American elections are local in nature and rarely decided by national trends. Roosevelt learned this the hard way in 1938. The president was unsuccessful in defeating the rebellious southern Democrats, despite having won 62 percent of the national popular vote and every state except Maine and Vermont in the 1936 election. In fact, he was unable to beat George or any of the southerners he targeted. His only success was against Rules Committee Chairman John O’Connor (D-NY), who had been instrumental in preventing Roosevelt’s bills from reaching the House floor.
But just because Roosevelt failed does not mean that Trump will too. Even though he had assembled a “elimination committee” to target New Deal opponents, liberals criticized Roosevelt’s focus on the south. They thought he put too much emphasis on areas where race relations dominated the public discourse rather than economic issues. If he would have targeted more northern conservatives like John O’Connor, he might have been able to weaken intraparty resistance among Democrats.
Trump could learn from where Roosevelt failed and go after the Freedom Caucus districts where his vote margin exceeded or was close to theirs (FiveThirtyEight identified 14 districts where the margin was +/-5 percent or better). But, even if he is able to target vulnerable Freedom Caucus members efficiently, Trump still faces steep obstacles in selling his brand of Republicanism to their districts, which, as recent research shows, favor ideological purity over the pragmatic deal-making that he has made his central selling point. Furthermore, the incumbency advantage is strong among members of Congress, with usually about 90 percent of those who run winning reelection.
Roosevelt used his personal popularity to assemble a unique electoral coalition of organized labor, urban blacks, and female voters behind his New Deal platform. However, southern Democrats were a necessary part of his coalition, especially if he wanted to maintain a national, as opposed to a regional, appeal. Trump also displayed some ability to bring in unlikely Republican voters, namely the 206 counties of mainly white, working-class voters that flipped from Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Trump in 2016. Like Roosevelt, he may find it difficult to reconcile the desires of his personal electoral coalition with the traditional party base. This could possibly lead to the formation of cross-party coalitions where moderate Democrats (perhaps those from districts Trump won) and Republicans work with Trump to bypass the Freedom Caucus.
But if Trump both fails to win over Freedom Caucus districts and corral moderate Democrats (which seems likely with his low approval rating numbers among the Democratic base), the last two years of his presidency might be difficult. The surviving members of the Freedom Caucus are unlikely to appreciate a personal challenge from the president in 2018 and Democrats would probably be better off betting on a 2020 victory than cooperating with a president that they loathe. If this scenario becomes reality, expect even more congressional gridlock in the waning days of the Trump presidency, with most major policy overhauls coming via executive action rather than from the legislative branch.
As of now, the Freedom Caucus is not worried about threats from Trump. They believe that they have a better feel for what their districts want than the president and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for another Republican to outflank them on the right. This tweet from conservative stalwart and one of the Freedom Caucus’s founding members, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), may sum up what the group thinks about Trump’s threats:
Rob Oldham is a political writer interested in legislative politics at the state and national levels.