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Primary Problem

The Primary Problem derails McCarthy's bid

The Primary Problem derails McCarthy's bid

Unite America
January 4, 2023

It seems that it wasn’t a matter of “if” for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, but “when” — and “when” may not be when you think.

Yes, it was technically on Tuesday that the U.S. House of Representatives failed to achieve a majority vote for speaker, the first time in a century that the contest had required multiple ballots.

Something that happens once in a hundred years is an aberration on the scale of modern history. But McCarthy’s road-blocked path to the House speakership instead has been an inevitability. Tuesday was evidence of a battering ram breaching the gate; the Primary Problem breaking through congressional politics.

See, McCarthy didn’t fall short on January 3, 2023. He fell short day by day, measure by measure, over the course of years:

  • Each time a state government gerrymandered its districts to enable the majority party and isolate the minority party that much more;
  • Each time a new population count showed more Republicans moving to Republican-controlled areas and more Democrats moving to Democratic-controlled areas;
  • Each time that the political system failed to adjust to such trends — trends that were moving the country further from a functional and representative democracy, and more toward government-by-primary-voter.

Think of it this way: As more congressional seats become “safe” for both major parties, the potential size of the majority decreases. Look at how the Republican-Democratic margins in the House have tightened over the last 100 years:

The House has been separated by fewer than 20 seats just eight times in the last century; five of those times have been in the last 25 years.

The smaller the majority, the greater the influence that just a few members can have on governing — including, in McCarthy’s case, determining the speakership.

Consider that more Republicans voted against John Boehner for speaker in 2015 (25) than against McCarthy on the first ballot on Tuesday (19); that McCarthy was the one of the two who didn’t net a majority; and that McCarthy’s intraparty opponents were from solidly red districts, as the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter documented (1, 2).

“There is a tail that wags the dog element of this,” said CNN’s David Axelrod on Tuesday. “They [the anti-McCarthy vote] don’t represent large numbers of Republicans, but they’re using their leverage as they do in primary elections — to push the party in a direction that really damages the party’s chances in a general election.”

A growing number of Republicans are open to discussing and even warming to electoral reform, which — as Alaska’s new voting model showed — benefits strong parties, not one party or the other. For those who are skeptical or unaware of reform, however, Tuesday was an occasion to consider what the status quo is costing their particular party.