The decision of the Republican House, led by Kevin McCarthy, an otherwise sane person, to oust Liz Cheney from her leadership position is a measure of just how afraid Republicans are, not of Democrats but of each other.
The arithmetic is simple. Most House seats are “safe,” meaning that the incumbent’s party has a comfortable advantage in the district. Some conservatives like to blame the Voting Rights Act and the creation of majority-minority districts, but manipulating district lines for political purposes is as old as my hometown’s hero.
Elbridge Gerry of Marblehead, Massachusetts, a former vice president of the United States, is best known for his decision as governor of Massachusetts to sign into law a plan that created a partisan district in the city of Boston that looked like a salamander. Thus: gerrymandering, not necessarily into salamander-shaped districts but into districts that serve partisan purposes.
There are two basic strategies in gerrymandering, assuming your party controls the state legislature and the governor’s office. Assume Republicans do. They can either spread the Democratic vote as thinly as possible so that Democrats don’t have a majority in any district, even though 40% or more of the population is Democratic. Or, to be on the safe side for all those suburban and rural Republican incumbents, they can concentrate the Democratic vote in just one or two districts that a Democrat can carry with 80% or 90% of the vote, leaving the rest of the state or county for Republicans. Democrats, let me be clear, will do just the same to Republicans.
The Supreme Court has struggled over the years with constitutional challenges to gerrymandered districts. Drawing district lines to dilute the voting power of protected minorities violates the Voting Rights Act. But political gerrymandering has earned wider deference, with the result that state and national parties often find themselves on opposite sides of the issue, with, for example, the California Democrats likely to side with the national Republicans.
The result is what many political scientists describe as stagnation. In recent elections, between 94% and 98% of the incumbents on the ballot in November get reelected, and 2020 was no different.
When you are in a safe seat, as most members are, the threat comes not from the other party but from your own. Members of Congress tend to be either more liberal (Democrats) or more conservative (Republicans) than the majority of voters, because if they aren’t, they could face a primary challenge.
In general elections, the middle holds. In congressional elections, there is rarely any middle at all. The real election is the primary: In 2020, eight incumbents lost their seats, including two Republicans who lost to more conservative challengers, notwithstanding then-President Donald Trump’s endorsement. If they can lose to the Republican right even with Trump on their side, imagine if he weren’t.
It didn’t matter that Liz Cheney had a more conservative voting record than her replacement; Republicans who should have known better voted against her because they would face withering criticism from Trump if they did not fall in line. It doesn’t matter how conservative they are, or how accomplished (see, for example, the late John McCain): Those who fail to give Caesar his due may face a primary opponent as their punishment.
Which is why Kevin McCarthy, charged with herding the howling cats, went directly from deposing Cheney to meeting at the White House with the man he only just readily acknowledged is president.
The usual rule of thumb is that the party of power in the White House loses seats in the midterms, which, given the slim advantage Democrats hold, should increase the likelihood of Republicans gaining control in 2022. But Donald Trump refuses to disappear, as ex-presidents are supposed to do in the early days of a new administration. The more his name is in the news, the better President Biden and the Democrats look for 2022. Keep talking, Donald!