Due to the opposition of the conservative Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was forced to pull proposed legislation supported by President Donald Trump to “Repeal and Replace” the Affordable Care Act. In response, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is hinting that the President may campaign against some Freedom Caucus members in the 2018 primary elections. Trump is quickly learning that the Republican Party is far from monolithic.
In a system with only two major political parties, factionalism permeates each party. The Democratic House minority has members from the center of the political spectrum (known as Blue Dogs) to the avowedly progressive members of the “Progressive Caucus.” Contrariwise, The Republican Party is host to the center-left Republican Main Street Partnership and the conservative Freedom Caucus.
At election time, the Presidential candidate usually tries to downplay internecine battles within his party and campaigns for party members from all factions within the party. It is rare but not unprecedented for a President to get involved in a primary against an incumbent member of his own party.
Even in 2006, when the more conservative Republican Steve Laffey challenged liberal incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) in the primary, President George W. Bush and the GOP high command supported Chafee. They did this despite the fact that Chafee was the only Republican to vote against the administration on the authorization for the use of force in Iraq, and despite the fact that Chafee opposed the Bush tax cuts and the Bush administration’s Prescription Drugs program.
There have been examples of Presidents campaigning in primaries against recalcitrant members of their own parties. However, usually embarrass themselves in the process.
For example, in 1910, the Republican Party was split asunder between progressives who favored an activist Federal Government, and the more conservative faction known as “the standpatters” led by President William Howard Taft. Taft actively campaigned for conservative challengers to his progressive opponents. The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee even funded conservative challengers and sent Taft out on the campaign trail to lambaste the Progressives.
The Progressives responded by forming “Progressive Republican Clubs” in a bid to become the dominant faction in the party. Taft’s efforts floundered as progressives upended 40 incumbent conservatives in the primary.
The effort continued in 1912, as the progressives rallied around former President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt announced that if he lost the nomination, he would run for President as the nominee of a third party. After that announcement, Roosevelt won a string of Republican primary victories. He won 284 delegates in the primaries compared to just 125 for Taft. However, Taft secured the nomination because of the support from “pledged delegates” (individual Republicans who had a vote at the convention).
In addition, Roosevelt forces alleged that GOP Chairman Elihu Root rigged the convention for Taft. True to his word, Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party and ran as the nominee of the Progressive, a.k.a. Bull Moose Party.
In the General Election, the Republican Party was split. Progressives voted for Roosevelt and conservatives marked ballots for Taft. Democrat Woodrow Wilson walked away with the election.
After the election, some progressives came back to the GOP fold. However, in 1924 the progressive bloodline became disillusioned by the conservative policies of Republican President Calvin Coolidge. Progressive Republican U.S. Senator Robert La Follette Sr. (R-WI) accepted the nomination of the Progressive Party. La Follette won 16.6% of the vote and only one state, Wisconsin.
Twelve maverick GOP U.S. House members supported the candidacy of La Follette. U.S. House Speaker Nicolas Longworth (R-OH) reprimanded them. He barred these electoral mutineers from serving on important committees during the next Congressional session. In the U.S. Senate, La Follette and three of his Republican colleagues who had supported his candidacy lost their committee assignments.
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was extremely popular in the South. Many conservative members of Congress had won re-election the last two times by tethering themselves to him even though they did not support his progressive domestic “New Deal” legislative programs. This betrayal of loyalty irked Roosevelt.
Accordingly, Roosevelt hit the campaign hustings, stumping for progressive Democrats who opposed conservative, mostly Southern Democratic incumbents. However, his efforts failed, as most conservatives won renomination. In fact, only one Roosevelt-supported challenger ousted an incumbent Democrat. Roosevelt imprudently envisioned an ideologically homogenous Democratic Party which would support all his initiatives.
There is at least one instance where Presidential intervention in a primary was successful. Although he supported most incumbent Democrats in the 1918 mid-term primary elections, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson made one exception. He endorsed challenger Pat Harrison against the incumbent Democrat, U.S. Senator James K. Vardaman (D-MS). Wilson was inflamed that Vardaman had voted against the Congressional Declaration of War with Germany. Harrison, as a member of the House, was a loyal supporter of Wilson, and supported the declaration. Vardaman did not take Wilson’s endorsement of Harrison very well. He called Wilson: “the coldest blooded, most selfish ruler beneath the stars today.” Harrison won that election.
Trump is learning a hard lesson that just because his party controls both houses of Congress does not mean that all Republicans will vote in lockstep. While Trump handily won most Congressional Districts of Freedom Caucus members, members will likely win plaudits from their conservative constituents for arguing that the Trump-supported version of Health Care does not go far enough in repealing and replacing Obamacare.
As long as two parties dominate the political landscape, there will always be intramural cleavages. Furthermore, campaigns against incumbent party members almost always backfire. Spicer suggested that wayward Republicans will “probably pay a price at home.” If that means that Trump will campaign against them, the historical precedent informs us that Trump’s efforts will be unsuccessful.