Intraparty organizations’ electoral coordination and party leader retribution

The dynamics in Congress today increasingly reference intraparty organizations like the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) or the New Democrat Coalition. Groups like these, which have existed since at least the late 19th century in Congress, are still not fully understood by scholars or the public. While my dissertation seeks to shed light on the role these groups play in shaping the congressional agenda, this post focuses on a separate critical aspect of intraparty organization activity. How do intraparty organizations survive electorally while extracting benefits from party leaders?

In the modern Congress members often build their own reelection war chests. In the process, most members also give some of their hard-earned money to their copartisans. This practice is especially prominent among party leaders or ambitious members seeking more power but has gradually grown to be used by almost all rank-and-file members. In the same way that party leaders can raise and distribute funds to members in return for their loyalty, intraparty organization members can raise and distribute funds to fellow group members for loyalty and protection after squabbles with party leaders. Moreover, party leaders can choose to withhold funds from problem-causing members or groups.

To test these claims about intraparty organizations’ electoral coordination and party leader retribution, I examine the House Republican Party in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. The analysis focuses on the already well-established Republican Study Committee (RSC) and the newly established, and already infamous, House Freedom Caucus. Using social network analysis, I map the member-to-member contribution networks for all House Republicans; that is, each member of the House Republican Party in the network is linked to every other member they transferred money to in each given election cycle. These contribution data are drawn directly from itemized Leadership Political Action Committee (LPAC) disbursement data disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.

The most active members in the member-to-member contribution networks consist of the usual suspects (i.e., party leaders, powerful committee chairs, ambitious members) with one important caveat. Jim Jordan was nowhere to be found among the most active members (measured by out-degree centrality) in the 2014 election cycle; after the HFC formed he became the sixth most active member in the network. In other words, he began donating larger amounts of money to a greater number of members in the network.

The remaining analysis is consistent with the picture this table begins to paint. Members who chose to join the House Freedom Caucus became more active in the network, on average, and altered their electoral disbursements to disproportionately support fellow group members. In fact, I find not only an increase in HFC members’ activity but also that they cluster together in the 2016 network. This cluster, defined by HFC-centric disbursements, reveals three potential House Freedom Caucus members that do not formally affiliate with the group: Pete Sessions (TX-32), Daniel Webster (FL-11), and Thomas Massie (KY-4). This finding is particularly interesting given that the formal HFC membership roster is not publicly disclosed.

Member-to-Member Network (2016 Electoral Cycle)
Note: Rank-and-file members are red nodes, party leaders and committee chairs are purple nodes, and House Freedom Caucus members are green nodes.

The pattern of support identified among House Freedom Caucus members does not exist among members of the larger and older Republican Study Committee. In fact, there is no clear financial relationship among members of the RSC. This finding illustrates that electoral coordination is not uniform across all intraparty organizations. It remains unclear which attributes of these groups leads to more or less cohesive electoral strategies, but future work of mine will attempt to tease out variation across group attributes as well.

It is clear that some intraparty organizations are relying on one another to survive and bolster their electoral odds, but this activity does not apply to all groups. But the question remains, are members of these groups being targeted by party leaders? The data show that non-HFC House Republicans opted to support HFC members less after the group formally organized (i.e., in the 2016 electoral cycle). While this finding provides evidence that copartisans treat intraparty organization members differently before and after their formation, one can only speculate about the extent to which this coordination was ordered by party leaders. Whether or not party leaders are able to execute micro-level management of their members’ contributions to one another is an interesting question. Unfortunately, evidence to answer this question remains elusive. Nevertheless, the management of intraparty organizations by party leaders remains an area ripe for scholarly inquiry.

The analysis presented here provides an important first step for understanding how intraparty organizations persist to consistently extract benefits from party leaders (e.g., the House Freedom Caucus) or prove to be ineffective (e.g., the Republican Study Committee). Moreover, the collective partisan responses to intraparty organization coordination suggests that these groups are likely perceived to have some impact on the legislative process causing members to withhold support from their colleagues who opt-in to some of these groups. It remains unclear how successful any given intraparty organization is in impacting the legislative process, but Matthew Green’s new book and preliminary findings from my dissertation suggests scholars should be optimistic. Intraparty organizations can impact the trajectory of a bill as it moves through (or dies within) the legislative process.

For scholars, this project demonstrates that member-to-member contribution networks can be a useful tool for studying intraparty organizations. These networks are useful not only for empirical evaluation of electoral coordination among intraparty organizations, but also for identifying potential group members in groups with secret membership rosters (like the HFC). Moreover, these findings add to a growing body of literature that suggests scholars and members of the public alike should not underestimate the power and longevity of well-organized groups of rank-and-file members of Congress. Intraparty organizations can successfully and consistently challenge powerful party leaders and coordinate for their own survival. The successes of the House Freedom Caucus demonstrate this, but they are not the first, nor will they be the last, group to influence congressional behavior.

Filed Under:
Topics: Committees & Caucuses
Zachary A. McGee
I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. I received my M.A. in Government from the University of T...