Congressional conservatives clash with CA GOP

Kevin McCarthy1

Photo by Justin LoFranco

In a broad turnabout, the fortunes of California Republicans in Congress have waned as conservatives on the Hill have gained the advantage.

The shift, which began with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., withdrawing abruptly from a race for Speaker he had seemed certain to win, has sidelined other members of the GOP’s California delegation. “Despite his lead over other candidates,” the Los Angeles Daily News recalled, “McCarthy had failed to win over a small but crucial bloc in the House GOP: the hardline Freedom Caucus. This group of 30-plus uncompromising conservatives drove Boehner to resign by threatening a floor vote on his speakership. On the eve of [the] vote they announced they would oppose Boehner’s No.2, McCarthy, and back one of his rivals instead, Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, a former speaker of the Florida House.”

Fresh fissures

Rather than hinging on ideology, tough tactics have been largely responsible for the obdurate reputation the Freedom Caucus has made for itself. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., recently announced his withdrawal from the Caucus — despite sterling conservative credentials on the Hill. “A charter member of the House Freedom Caucus when it began earlier this year, McClintock quit the group last month,” as McClatchy reported. “Just last year, the American Conservative Union had given him a 99 percent lifetime support score. Only one House of Representatives Republican was more consistent.”

In an interview with the wire, McClintock said of the Freedom Caucus that “their tactics have become counterproductive for the enactment of a conservative agenda,” singling out its “opposition to a trade bill and its willingness to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood funding.” Although those issues have emerged as important to a slice of the Republican base often associated with the Tea Party, the Caucus has come under fire more for using them as wedges to weaken and challenge the establishment GOP leadership in Congress.

Political blowback

But the establishment’s own political acumen — or lack thereof — has fueled the sense among Tea Party sympathizers that the Freedom Caucus has no choice but to combat the sitting GOP leadership. Rep. McCarthy’s unforced error on the Benghazi investigation, which he touted as an effective political weapon against Hillary Clinton, became a sizable boon for Democrats.

For some California conservatives, insult was added to injury when the Golden State’s Congressional Democrats like Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Linda Sanchez seized on the opportunity to raise their own profiles during the suddenly beleaguered hearing. “The kind of spotlight Schiff and Sanchez enjoyed Thursday is rare for California lawmakers, particularly those in densely populated Southern California, which has an ultra-competitive media market,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Such visibility can be helpful for someone like Schiff, who has served in Congress for nearly 15 years and is well-respected by colleagues, but whose name recognition is lower than more prominent members of the delegation.”

Ballot blues

The political crossfire has troublesome implications for the coming election cycle in California, where state Republicans have grown increasingly desperate to field candidates capable of notching some wins. “The National Republican Congressional Committee sent a staffer out to the Golden State last week to search for and meet with potential candidates and convince them to run in competitive districts in San Diego, Palm Springs and Sacramento, according to a source with knowledge of the visit,” Roll Call recently reported. “But after a string of losses in the state, multiple Republican strategists in California are pessimistic about the GOP’s ability to recruit top-tier challengers, especially for 2016, when presidential-year turnout is expected to benefit Democrats.”

While national conservatives have blamed the state GOP’s drift away from core principle, California Republicans have pointed the finger at the kind of truculence they say defines the Freedom Caucus. State GOP consultant Richard Temple told Roll Call “a major problem for Republican candidates running in the state is that they are weighed down by the national GOP’s brand. He said the image could be fixed if the field of candidates Republicans recruit reflected the party’s growing diversity, but he said without donors believing those candidates can win, getting them to run will be hard,” the site noted.

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