Today, the number of true swing districts in the House is vanishingly small. Only 17 Republicans won in districts that Barack Obama also carried. Meanwhile, the number of what elections-data savant Nate Silver calls "landslide districts" – districts that are 20-plus points more Republican than the nation at large – has swelled to 125, up from 92 just a decade ago.
Members from these über-safe districts don't fear the challenge posed by a mainstream Democrat in the general election. They dread a well-funded primary opponent running to their right. "You've got very small numbers of people who vote in GOP primaries," says Bartlett, who served in the Reagan administration. "It doesn't take very many of these Tea Party people to show up to find out you're on your ass."
To keep this threat fresh in members' minds, the Club for Growth recently launched a campaign called "Primary My Congressman!" that seeks to oust centrist Republicans from safe seats – and replace them with the hardest of the hardcore. "The Club for Growth is a cancer on the Republican Party," said Steve LaTourette, a recently retired moderate House Republican from Ohio. "The only thing that grows when the Club for Growth gets involved is the number of Democrats in office."
Republicans were also ecstatic when the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision undermined the system of regulated campaign finance. But this boon to the wealthy donor class has become the bane of those trying to forge party unity. Now donors can microtarget the faction of Republicanism that suits them best. "There's a difference between rich Republicans used to working through K Street and the guy who just sold his plumbing business and happens to be a total libertarian winger," says the think-tank fellow. The rise of outside money has made a mockery of what used to be the leadership's biggest stick: "If leadership says, 'We're not going to fund you if you don't vote with us,' the members laugh," the strategist says. "'Keep your $10,000. I'm going to take $200,000 from an outside group.' Or better yet, 'I'm going to start my own Super PAC and send out e-mails about how John Boehner is standing in the way of our shared values.'"
In the last election, for instance, John Ramsey, a 21-year-old Ron Paul fan from Texas, used money he inherited from his grandparents to create the Liberty for All Super PAC. He funded the winning campaign of libertarian Kentucky freshman Massie with more than $629,000 in independent expenditures. As a result, Massie – a gregarious, MIT-educated 42-year-old – is a party of one, free to buck GOP leadership. Indeed, in his very first week in office, Massie joined in the coup effort that nearly stripped Boehner of his speakership.
The chaos now roiling the House is, in many ways, a battle between the two most powerful GOP party bosses – Karl Rove and Jim DeMint. For Rove, the activists of the Republican base have always been useful rubes. Republicans in the Rove school campaign on wedge issues that rally grassroots Republicans to the polls. But once these politicians get to Washington, they shift to fight for the interests of the party's financial backers. In the emerging party of DeMint, however, the base that Rove scorns is everything. Only the daily pressure of grassroots activists, DeMint believes, can force Republicans to deliver in Washington on the smallgovernment promises they make to their constituents back home.
These two schools of governing can't, ultimately, be reconciled. The DeMint school believes in combat, and in turning every possible government choke point into a high-stakes confrontation: You win by standing on principle, refusing to yield and letting the chips fall where they may. As Cruz put it to activists in Dallas, "If you have an impasse, one side or the other has to blink. How do we win? Don't blink."
"The elites have different agendas than the rank and file," says Bartlett, the former Reagan official. "Your average Tea Party people may be content to have gridlock forever, but the money people – the corporations, the lobbyists – they need stuff." And people in that camp have a lot riding on John Boehner and Eric Cantor.
Boehner and Cantor have learned to speak the language of the Tea Party – the majority leader more fluently than the speaker – but their real job is to keep the old Republican-patronage machine humming. In their political bloodlines and in their donor networks, both Boehner and Cantor are deeply connected to the politics of Rove. Boehner's signature accomplishment was steering George W. Bush's education initiative No Child Left Behind to passage – a law that Needham decries as "a gargantuan federalization of education" and "an anathema to conservatives." For his part, Cantor was a key member of the 2003 Tom DeLay whip team that twisted arms in an infamous all-night session required to pass the deficit-financed Medicare prescription-drug plan, a Rove-driven gift to Big Pharma and the most sweeping expansion of the program since the days of Lyndon Johnson.
Boehner is renowned as a "Chamber of Commerce Republican" – and the campaign-finance data are unambiguous: In the 2012 election cycle, Boehner was the House's top recipient of campaign cash from 34 different industries, from hedge funds and investment firms to coal mining, studentloan companies, hospitals, nursing homes and Big Tobacco. He was also the top recipient of campaign cash from lobbyists themselves, raking in $393,000 according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In D.C., the speaker's clubby network of staffers and lobbyists is known as "Boehnerland," and its members include heavy hitters for Citigroup, UPS, Altria, AmEx, Akin Gump and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "The Boehner folks barbecue on Sunday together, they go on vacations together, they name their kids after each other," says the former leadership aide.
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