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Understanding the House Republican ClusterFrick

Most of them are either Full Kraken or scared of their own voters.
February 4, 2021
Understanding the House Republican ClusterFrick
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Kevin McCarthy is lost. He’s blurting his inner monologue to anyone who will listen, careening back and forth between MAGA monstar and establishment elephant—depending on whom he last spoke to. The House Republican conference he has been charged with leading is a frazzledrip inside a clusterfuck wrapped in a cocoon of anthrophobia. They are as coherent a unit as the 2001 Super Bowl Halftime Show featuring Aerosmith, Britney, N’Sync, Nelly, and Mary J. Blige.

Many of the “representatives” McCarthy wants to “lead” are simultaneously deathly afraid of their voters and personally bewildered as to whether the party is going to return to zombie Reaganism, pivot to populist nationalism, launch “I’m not a suitBarstool conservatism, or just go the whole hog on Q.

That’s why today Republicans voted 199-to-11—in a public ballot—to keep the assassination-supporting, school-shooting-denying, coup-backing, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim bigot in her position on the House committees for education and labor and the budget, while the same caucus voted 145-61—in a secret ballot—to keep impeachment-supporting, truth-telling, anti-conspiracy neocon Liz Cheney as conference chair the night before.

How does any of this make sense?

It is partially explained, as Charlie Sykes and Jonathan Last pointed out yesterday, by the differences between secret and public votes, which produced very different results because the Republican caucus is afraid of its voters. Most of them are afraid of the Republican primary voters, while a handful of the 11 represent the suburbs and are afraid of being defined by Greene’s most bigoted and outlandish claims.

Liz is a Cheney, so she was able to smell the fear in the room and probably benefited from having her fate tied to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s. In a vacuum, her colleagues might have been willing to toss her out of leadership. But the costs of such a move would have been dramatically higher had Republicans done this in the same breath as they stood up for MQG. Cheney gambled that Republicans are so terrified that they’d try to split the baby by keeping her while also standing by the crazy lady, and then trying to pretend that we can all go back to 2015 and complain about the Democrats.

It was a sharp bet because Cheney understands the makeup of the Republican conference. Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman observed that the GOP House members can be divided into thirds—what he calls the Freedom Caucus, the Institutionalists, and the Floaters.

While Wasserman is correct about the internal divide, he’s a bit generous in both his descriptions and the assessment that the groups are divided equally. The actions of the past two months—from the coup attempt to the election-certification votes to the MQG and Cheney controversies—suggest that the division is actually pretty lopsided.

I would posit that it looks more like this:

1) The Fear Caucus (Floaters)
2) The Kraken Caucus (Freedom)
3) The Milhouse Caucus (Institutionalists)

When you look at the last two months, it’s pretty clear that the Milhouses are a rump. The Krakens are a bit less than a third, but growing. And the Fear caucus is, by far, the biggest; they’re the group McCarthy represents.


Sixty-one Republicans voted to guillotine Liz Cheney even on a secret ballot. This is the uncut Kraken. We don’t know exactly who made up the 61 but we can safely assume that among their number are the “New Republican Men” such as Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert, and Matt Gaetz, as well as the Freedom Caucus holdovers such as Louie Gohmert, Jim Jordan, and Mo Brooks.

When these Republicans voted to overturn the election results they were both literal and serious. They would have supported a MAGA dictatorship without feeling even a tinge of concern. They are already plotting to overthrow McCarthy as party leader in favor of Jordan. A plurality of Republican voters—at least!—are with them, and they know it. So in any votes that take place in the light of day, their numbers will swell to a majority.

The Milhouse Caucus is made up of the small cadre of Republicans who had the courage to stand up to Trump’s attempt to overthrow our democracy and hold him accountable—plus those who, if they had their druthers, would probably put Pierre Delecto back in charge of the party. This group voted to certify the election results and to keep Cheney. How many are there?

One way to look at it is that about 50 House Republicans voted to certify the election and also didn’t sign the Texas AG letter demanding that the Supreme Court overturn the swing-state Electoral College results. These 50 or so may not have been rolling out the red carpet for Joe Biden in November and December but at least they didn’t actively abet a coup.

Another way to define the group would be to look at the members of the Main Street Partnership, the self-defined “centrist” alliance. They have 52 House members (but let’s say 51, since one of them is Elise Stefanik, who doesn’t really count since she took a MAGA blood oath after she joined). Add Liz Cheney and Tom Rice—hard-line conservatives who seem to actually care about the Constitution—and that brings the number to 53. This is our high-variant scenario.

The glass-is-half-empty view might be that this group is really composed of only the 10 members who actually voted for impeachment plus the 8 additional members who voted to expel MQG from her committee assignments, with special kudos to the three who backed both (Kinzinger, Katko, and Upton).

So no matter where you fall on the optimism-pessimism scale, the Milhouses are the smallest group, ranging somewhere between 18 and 53 members.

Which leaves between 97 and 132 Republicans—either a solid plurality or a slim majority—in the Fear Caucus.

McCarthy is the charter member of the Fear Caucus, all of whom participated at some level in Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election, while also supporting someone as conference chair who argued Trump should be impeached for that very act.

How do they square that circle?

Because they’re scared! Scared of their voters.

Scared that Matt Gaetz might take his bouffant to their state. Before impeachment, some said they were literally scared for their lives. They were scared that axing Liz Cheney would make the party look bad. Scared that their big donors are going to ditch them if the footsie with the seditionists gets too overt. Scared of Marge Q. Greene. Scared of getting shouted down at airports and county GOP dinners.

But most of all they’re scared that if they make the wrong move they’re going to get primaried by a Marge-type figure in their own districts.

Some—like Dan Crenshaw (Texas) and Nancy Mace (South Carolina)—wish in their hearts that they could be Milhouses. But because they already have their eyes on the next rung and are going to need the Krakens, they’re trying to play both sides.

Some are Bush-era conservatives, such as Mike Rogers (Alabama) and Kevin Brady (Texas), who are just trying to fit in with their new MAGA neighbors.

And some are seasoned “Yesterday’s Reps” who are so confused that they are playing all sides of the Q-coup. You have Jeff Fortenberry (Nebraska), Tom Emmer (Minnesota), and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Washington) who signed the Texas AG letter supporting the coup—but then voted to certify the election. You’ve got halfway coup stars like Dave Schweikert (Arizona) and Steve Chabot (Ohio) who supported overturning Pennsylvania’s votes, but not Arizona’s.

All of the Fear Caucus members are able to read polls like this one from Axios that shows Marjorie Taylor Greene having a +10 favorability rating with Republicans while Liz Cheney sits at -28. So the overwhelming majority of the Fear Caucus stuck with Greene. (With the exception of the handful who needed fodder for general-election ads because they represent the Miami or Philly or L.A. suburbs.)

These cowards are the ones who are driving the Republicans over the edge. They are trying to figure out which way the political winds are blowing and they are going to follow them, no matter how undemocratic or unmoored from what they once thought were their conservative principles.

They are trying to survive while the tectonic plates of our politics shift underneath them. And they are willing to go along with anything to keep from falling through the cracks.

Kevin McCarthy is the Fear Caucus leader. And his members’ fear has a hold on him.

Correction February 5, 10:00 AM: 199 Republicans voted to keep Marjorie Taylor Greene on her committees, not 200.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.