Meet the Right-Wing Rebels Who Overthrew John Boehner

The House Freedom Caucus is an ideological and uncompromising band of anti-government radicals. And they're just getting started

By
National Affairs
The House Freedom Caucus overthrew John Boehner, but the anti-government radicals are just getting started. Victor Juhasz

The Republican civil war has claimed its biggest casualty yet. The revolution that toppled John Boehner was carried out by a group of intransigent conservatives who had made the speaker of the House's job hell ever since the Tea Party wave of 2010 elevated him to power. It is only in recent months that this disruptive force in American politics even has a name: the House Freedom Caucus.

Composed of nearly 40 of the most committed ideologues in the House, the Freedom Caucus has a simple mission: to get GOP leadership to deliver on the extreme, anti-government and social-conservative rhetoric that nearly all Republicans spout to get elected.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, a member from South Carolina who played football at Clemson, insists the Freedom Caucus just wants to take the fight to the Democrats: "Republicans are in control of the House and the Senate — and it's about time we pass bills that reflect what Republicans stand for."

Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, himself ousted by Tea Party forces in a primary last year, counters that House hard-liners just don't comprehend the GOP's strategic weakness, in the face of the Democratic filibuster and presidential veto: "I have never heard of a football team that won by throwing only Hail Mary passes," Cantor wrote following Boehner's ouster, "yet that is what is being demanded of Republican leaders today."

If you're not a close observer of Washington politics, the archetype of the Freedom Caucus member that's springing to mind right now is almost certainly wrong. New York Republican Rep. Peter King may have called Boehner's unseating "a victory for the crazies," but there's little lunatic about this fringe. The Freedom Caucus features whip-smart politicians who know how to tell it plain to the folks back home — but may prefer to keep their book-learning on the down-low. Take Rep. Tim Huelskamp. The third-term Kansan sports a buzz cut and a goatee and has the aw-shucks bearing of farmhand-gone-to-Washington. What he doesn't advertise is the political-science doctorate he earned at American University. "Please don't put this in the story," he says with a self-deprecating smile, "but my Ph.D. studies include public administration — organizational theory."

Other members include medical doctors, high-powered attorneys — even a former governor, Appalachian Trail hiker Mark Sanford. Though Southerners predominate, Freedom Caucus members come from all corners — 25 states in all — including New Mexico, Wyoming, Michigan and New Jersey. There's a fierce Southwestern streak: Four of Arizona's five Republican representatives are members.

Two Freedom Caucus members who played pivotal roles in ousting Speaker Boehner come from the Carolinas — and they dress like corporate CFOs. Tall and immaculately tailored, Rep. Mark Meadows looks like he should play himself in the Hollywood re-enactment of this drama. First elected to his rural North Carolina district in 2012, Meadows has zero national profile. But in July, he introduced a measure to unseat the speaker — the first in more than a century — a move that wildly exceeded his goal of sparking a "family conversation" over Boehner's future. 

Mark Meadows
Mark Meadows attends a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on September 29th, 2015. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The congressman who sealed the speaker's fate was Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a trim, clean-cut bulldog of a conservative who wears French cuffs and works at a standing desk. Mulvaney represents the same rural South Carolina district served by the fictional Frank Underwood in House of Cards.

During Congress' August recess, Mulvaney signed 31 right-wingers to an open letter committing to blocking funding of Planned Parenthood, which he claims trafficks in "dead-baby parts." And when Congress reconvened in September, the 48-year-old threw down the gauntlet to GOP leaders, demanding they put teeth behind their pro-life rhetoric: "Leadership is going to have to choose," he said. "Do they want it to be a talking point, or do they want to do something about it?"

In a House of 435 members, why would this small bloc of Republicans matter? Management of the chamber demands party discipline, and the speaker's agenda can be paralyzed by just 29 defections. By standing firm against Planned Parenthood, this gang of 31 signaled that the House GOP could not unite behind any budget bill that President Obama would actually sign. Mulvaney had set the clock ticking on another government shutdown — a time bomb that Boehner found he could only defuse by resigning.

We most often think of the Tea Party in opposition to the Obama presidency. In fact, the seeds of division in the modern GOP were sown late in the Bush administration. This anti-establishment movement was born of hard-right furor over GOP government intervention in the economy — including the bank and automaker bailouts — following years of K Street corruption and deficit-bloating social spending.

Freedom Caucus members define themselves less in opposition to Democrats than to "establishment" Republicans — politicians they see as quick to betray their voters, and subservient to K Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents big business in Washington. It's a view articulated by their Senate co-conspirator, Ted Cruz of Texas, who inveighs against a "Washington Cartel" of "lobbyists and career politicians" that "favors giant corporations over taxpayers."

Stocked with ex-jocks, the Freedom Caucus exudes a locker-room camaraderie. They speak in the argot of ESPN football announcers, blasting deceptive turns by GOP leadership as "trickeration" — as though they were describing a flea-flicker or a fake punt. Discussing legislative tactics, they're more apt to cite Bill Belichick, the champion NFL coach, than Sam Rayburn, the legendary speaker from Texas. To plot their latest mischief, the caucus retreats to the basement of the Tortilla Coast, a three-star Yelp-rated Tex-Mex joint just off the Capitol grounds that serves up happy-hour mini-tacos, fried pickles and Bud Light on draft.

To understand these representatives, focus less on personality than on political circumstance. They serve blood-red districts — "homogenous echo chambers," says Norman Ornstein, the American Enterprise Institute scholar who wrote the book on congressional dysfunction, It's Even Worse Than It Looks.

Their districts are typically composed of far-flung suburbs, exurbs and rural communities, sometimes with a third- or fourth-tier city — Grand Rapids, Michigan — thrown in. Economically, these districts fare slightly better than average: Their voters are hanging on in the middle class but hardly thriving, with a median household income of $54,000, just $1,000 above average.

The defining characteristic of these districts is race — they are 83 percent white, or nearly 10 percentage points higher than the national average. That demography is reflected in the makeup of the Freedom Caucus itself. With the prominent exceptions of a woman named Cynthia and a man named Raúl, these are all white men.

The Freedom Caucus acts like a third party in Washington because the political fates of its members are not yoked to the national GOP. Their districts rate R+13, according to Cook Political Report data crunched by Rolling Stone. This means their districts vote 13 percent more Republican than the nation as a whole — and are nearly a third more partisan than the median GOP seat (R+10).

When election season rolls around, these politicians don't fear moderate Democrats — they are only threatened by even more right-wing Republicans in a primary fight. Instead of seeking to make inroads with Hispanics or independent women, their political imperative is to serve up red meat to furious constituents who say they want "their country back."

Unaccountable to House leadership, these politicians respond to conservative pressure groups like Heritage Action — an offshoot of the Heritage Foundation. (Long a bastion of the establishment, Heritage is now run by reactionary ex-South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, and is a beating heart of insurgency in Washington.) Running afoul of Heritage's metrics of right-wing purity is the quickest way to invite an electoral challenge. "They have score cards," says Dick Durbin, the Senate's number-two Democrat. "It scares the bejesus out of Republicans: 'Vote yes, vote no — or get ready, we're coming at you in the primary.' "

For Freedom Caucus members, careers in Washington are not defined by incremental legislative progress, but by a chest-beating performance of red-state identity. Winning is subordinate to fighting — a dynamic that leads members to reverse Ronald Reagan's famous admonition: "I'd rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over a cliff with my flags flying."

The commander of the Freedom Caucus is Rep. Jim Jordan, whose rural Ohio district is gerrymandered into the shape of a pelican: The bill reaches into the outskirts of Cleveland, while the tail feathers ruffle up against Speaker Boehner's district in exurban Cincinnati.

Driving across Jordan's district — 89 percent white; R+9 — you go through idyllic cornfields dotted with red barns painted with American flags, and lush fields of soy with dystopian markers reading croplan genetics. On the AM dial, listeners can flip between at least three stations carrying Rush Limbaugh. The road into Lima — pronounced like the bean — passes United States Plastic Corp., whose sprawling headquarters is graced by a giant cross and a sign testifying: christ is the answer.

Lima is a hard-bitten Rust Belt city of 40,000; there is no Starbucks in town and the POW MIA flag flies in front of the county courthouse. The twin economic anchors are an oil refinery and the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center that rolls out Abrams tanks — a weapon that Army Gen. Ray Odierno insists "we don't need," but Congress keeps funding anyway, to the tune of $120 million in 2015 alone.

In June, Heritage Action honored Jordan on the Lima campus of Northeastern Ohio University for scoring 90 percent on its exacting score card. "It's hard to believe an organization as fine as Heritage could be wrong 10 percent of the time," Jordan joked to dozens of local Heritage activists. He then played a numbers game against members of his own party. "Do you know why 65 percent of Republicans think Republican leadership is not doing what they said they were going to do?" he asked, citing a recent Pew poll. "Because we're not doing what we said we were going to do!" 

Jordan is broad-shouldered and wiry, with thinning hair up top. He wears baggy dress shirts and speaks in rat-a-tat bursts. "You're the energy in American politics that's going to hold us accountable and force us to do what we campaigned on last fall, why you elected us, why you gave us back the Senate, and why you gave us the largest majority we've had in the House for 80 years," he told the crowd. "It's never been more important that we stand up and fight." 

Jim Jordan
Jim Jordan speaks during the Republican Study Committee news conference on July 16th, 2015 Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Jordan was a Tea Partier before the moniker was minted. First elected in 2008, he rose to command the Republican Study Committee — at the time, the most conservative caucus in the House. When the influx of ideological Tea Party freshmen arrived in 2010, Jordan picked off dozens disenchanted with establishment leadership to build the forces he'd lead into battle against Boehner.

Jordan's competitive fire was kindled during his career as a wrestler; he racked up four high school championships in Ohio and two NCAA titles at Wisconsin. Diminutive — he wrestled at 134 pounds — the 51-year-old hasn't lost his athletic build. A wrestling fan I met after a town-hall meeting in corn country told me, "He looks like he could still go."

Jordan isn't a natural politician. He's too wonky — like a less-polished version of Paul Ryan — with a habit of making his hands into the vectors of the line graph that he's trying to describe to constituents. But back in Washington, Jordan is a master of political leverage.

For a conventional politician, leading a bloc of 40 backbenchers, plus a dollar, gets you a cup of coffee. But Jordan's command of House rules empowers him to run unconventional plays — thrusting his right-wing bloc to the center of the most contentious policy debates in Washington.

Jordan embraces obstruction. And he has perfected the House equivalent of a filibuster. In a procedural wrinkle you don't learn about in civics class, bringing major legislation to the House floor first requires passage of a procedural "rule." These are party-line votes — these days, Republicans only — and historically perfunctory.

Jordan and his cohorts have found power in refusing to back these tallies — denying their speaker the 218 votes needed to tee up his agenda. Jordan's gang leveraged this tactic to stymie Boehner's plan to fund the government in 2013 — sparking a feckless two-week shutdown over Obamacare that cost the economy $24 billion. Last December, they came within a single vote of derailing the "Cromnibus" budget bill. And they were at it again in the Planned Parenthood fight: Mulvaney's open letter telegraphed to Boehner that he would not have the party-line votes to move a "clean" funding bill to the floor.

Ironically, Boehner had already been bending over backward to honor House conservatives, observing the "Hastert Rule" — by which only bills with the support of the majority of the GOP conference advance to the floor. Freedom Caucus obstruction of rule votes ratchets this bar even higher, blocking bills not backed by 218 of 247 members — or 88 percent.

The backbench rebellions that bedeviled Boehner are a new feature of American politics. In the recent past, Republicans fell in line because party leaders had carrots — OK, pork — and sticks: the threat of cutting off fundraising. "There were always conservative members and conservative districts," says a GOP consultant to a prominent presidential candidate. "But the incentives were different: You had to curry favor with leadership, so you were willing to compromise."

Today, the incentives are missing — or reversed. Leaders have no earmarks to bribe intransigent lawmakers. And conservatives who buck the establishment are rewarded by ideological Super PACs like the Club for Growth. If a representative is committed to disruption, the GOP consultant says, "What power does anybody in leadership have to move them off of that position? There isn't any."

The frustration among old-school House GOPs is visceral. Deputy Whip Tom Cole of Oklahoma likens the Freedom Caucus' tactics to extortion: "I don't think 40 people should be in the position of blackmailing 200 of their colleagues who hold a different view," Cole tells Rolling Stone. "You can't govern this place that way."

But politically, Freedom Caucus obstruction works, because it plays with the base back home. Take it from Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, the bespectacled economics professor who pulled off the biggest upset in congressional history last year by defeating majority leader Cantor in a primary.

"The idea that we're not on the team is false," says Brat, who has found a home in Jordan's fold. "We're the conservatives! We're the very heart of the Republican Party that's trying to represent the American people."

The nexus of power for the House Freedom Caucus is a high perch of the Longworth House office building — a redoubt for backbenchers, far from the gold leaf and bas-relief of the Capitol — where Jordan and Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho hold neighboring offices.

When I arrive at Labrador's office, Jordan is just leaving, accompanied by Congressman Meadows. Since his 2012 election, Meadows has been nothing but trouble for Boehner. In the 2013 shutdown fight, it was Meadows who played the instigator, circulating an open letter demanding the defunding of Obamacare. 

Raul Labrador
Raul Labrador Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

In a sweltering week in June, Meadows had been the target of Boehner's wrath, stripped of a subcommittee chairmanship for refusing to back a rule vote. But just hours after this powwow in Labrador's office, Meadows would get his gavel back. Jordan and his deputies discovered a wrinkle in the House rule book that empowers a majority of committee members — in this case, held by Tea Partiers — to overrule a decision by leadership. This reversal was more than embarrassing for Boehner — it sparked Meadows' retaliation in late July, a historic motion to "vacate the chair," accusing the speaker of abusing the "power of the office to punish members who vote according to their conscience."

Jordan will size up reporters with a wary smile and an alpha handshake. Labrador, his top lieutenant, is gregarious, rumpled and far less guarded. Labrador comes by his small-government ideology honestly; he was raised by a single mother in Puerto Rico, who instilled in him a bootstrapping sense of self-reliance. "My mom never used welfare because she believed welfare was destructive to the soul," he says. "I became a Republican because of that."

The purpose of the Freedom Caucus, Labrador says, is to hold party leadership's feet to the fire of the activist base. All Republicans — establishment and insurgent alike — vow they'll combat "out of control" government spending, fight for small business and stand tall for conservative social values. But the Tea Party congressmen are convinced that few members of the GOP are truly committed. "Once they get here," Labrador says, "they reject those things."

Labrador views his establishment colleagues as corrupt — selling out small-government principles for PAC donations — or, at best, mindless: "Any monkey can do what we do here, if all we're going to do is what our leadership tells us to do." He isn't bothered by being labeled an obstructionist: "When we stop bad legislation, it's just as functional as when you pass good legislation." And he couldn't care less if you think he's not a GOP team player: "I came here to represent my constituents," he tells Rolling Stone, "not the party."

Get Labrador rolling, and he reveals open contempt for GOP leadership: Contrasting the competence of Boehner and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to Nancy Pelosi, Labrador insists, "She's smarter than our leaders." He lets those treasonable words hang in the air for a moment before taking the same swipe at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: "And so is Harry Reid."

In his unvarnished attacks on GOP leadership, Labrador echoes Cruz, the Texan who led the 2013 government-shutdown fight from the upper chamber. The senator's sway with the Tortilla Coast gang has led even top House Democrats to dub him "Speaker Cruz." 

Kevin McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy listens to John Boehner after a House Republican Conference meeting on September 29th, 2015. Alex Wong/Getty

Cruz is an imperfect populist. A silver-tongued Princeton debater and Harvard-educated superlawyer, he is married to a Goldman Sachs banker. His bread has been buttered by the same Wall Street bailouts he denounces. Cruz's political patron is a billionaire hedge-fund manager, Robert Mercer, whose firm has been accused by the Senate of $6 billion in tax avoidance — casting a less virtuous light on the senator's campaign to "abolish the IRS."

But Cruz connects with the Tea Party in his denunciation of the Kabuki theater of the GOP establishment — wherein the party stages "show votes" of opposition to appease the party base, while stage-managing a process in which Obamacare gets funded or the debt ceiling rises.

Cruz doesn't see pragmatism in GOP leaders' refusal to pull out all the stops to advance a conservative agenda. He sees cowardice and an ulterior agenda — to conserve political capital to keep the party's corporate patrons well tended.

Cruz's frustration with GOP leadership boiled over in July when he denounced McConnell, on the Senate floor, as a "flat-out" liar who cuts "corrupt" deals while running a "government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists and for the lobbyists."

Freedom Caucus members share Cruz's hatred of the Senate leader — whose first name they practically spit as they say it. "Mitch McConnell is infinitely worse as a leader than Boehner," said Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona. "He surrenders at the sight of battle every time."

McConnell's establishment ties run deep. He's raised $80 million in campaign cash since his election to the Senate in 1984. His wife was a member of George W. Bush's Cabinet. And the Super PAC of the establishment, American Crossroads, is run by his former chief of staff.

McConnell is no liberal — he believes companies are having a hard time finding workers because America's poor are "doing too good with food stamps." But he is a master politico: never one to let rigid ideology stand in the way of cutting a deal.

In conservative ranks, McConnell is also despised for the campaign he waged in 2014 to de-Tea Partify the Senate. Over several elections, the Senate GOP had been drifting to the hard right, largely because establishment money sat out primary elections. This left reactionary groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by DeMint, to have a field day. DeMint's network launched some of the most recognizable names in modern politics — including senators Cruz, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. But SCF also cost the GOP as many as six winnable seats by backing unelectable wingnuts like former witchcraft dabbler Christine O'Donnell of Delaware.

McConnell set out to deny SCF "a single nominee anywhere in the country," vowing to "crush them everywhere." To aid this campaign, American Crossroads and the Chamber of Commerce plowed more than $20 million into Senate primary fights.

SCF, and allied groups like the Club for Growth were primed for battle — and even took the fight to McConnell. SCF spent nearly $800,000 on attack ads against the majority leader. But McConnell's powerful friends had his back: The chamber itself invested $1 million to support the Republican leader.

In the end, it wasn't much of a fight. McConnell trounced his primary challenger by 24 points. Similar results held across the country, even in places like Oklahoma and Mississippi, as one after another of SCF's candidates were defeated. The group's president, Ken Cuccinelli, seethed: "The establishment showed us . . . that they're willing to betray their own voters and tear the GOP apart to hold on to power."

Elections have consequences. And the establishment-dominated 114th Congress shot out of the gates to advance legislation favored by the Chamber of Commerce and other powerful special interests.

McConnell and Boehner overhauled Medicare to boost doctor pay — a top priority of the American Medical Association, which spent $20 million in lobbying last year. For a party that crusades against deficits, the 10-year deal was a major disconnect, racking up $140 billion in red ink.

In a heroic lift on behalf of corporate America, Boehner and McConnell rescued a divisive trade package — greasing the skids for a Pacific Rim free-trade deal expected to impact 40 percent of global GDP. Most infuriating to the Tea Party base, Republican leaders ducked a showdown over Obama's "executive amnesty," instead fully funding the Department of Homeland Security and the myriad contractors in its orbit.

With each snap of the ball, Freedom Caucus members blitzed the speaker. But Boehner stiff-armed his right flank, instead collaborating with pro-business Democrats to move legislation to the president's desk. During the trade deal, Boehner even embraced eight turncoat Democrats who joined with Republican moderates to break a Freedom Caucus filibuster and pass a rule vote.

"There are a lot of folks in our conference who have a very difficult time getting to 'yes' on anything," says Rep. Charlie Dent, a crisply tailored moderate representing Allentown, Pennsylvania. Dent leads a gang of center-right Republicans known as the Tuesday Group that supported Boehner's leadership. As Dent sees it, today's GOP is split between a "governance wing" and a "rejectionist wing." And the governance wing has no choice but to work with Democrats. "On any issue of great consequence around here, we on the Republican side don't have 218 votes for a bathroom break! So we always need a bipartisan coalition."

The House's brief bout of harmony made K Street happy. Marc Lampkin, a Boehner-deputy-turned-lobbyist, told The Hill this summer, "Corporations are a lot more optimistic about whether to invest in Washington." The Chamber of Commerce, too, was pleased. "Our leaders in Washington," said the group's CEO, "proved they could tune out the populists and demagogues."

Through a darker lens, the "populists and demagogues" saw the same state of play in Washington. "The Chamber is winning, the people are losing," Rep. Labrador told Rolling Stone. "They paid a lot of money for those votes."

But at least one (now-former) Freedom Caucus member saw self-destruction in the actions of his compatriots. Rep. Tom McClintock, the lone Californian in the group, resigned in September — writing in an open letter to Jordan that the caucus' intransigence had "thwarted vital conservative policy objectives." By making themselves a roadblock on the right, McClintock wrote, they gave Boehner no option but to tack left, empowering Democrats to shape legislation. The Freedom Caucus, he concluded, had "unwittingly become Nancy Pelosi's tactical ally." 

Tom McClintock
Tom McClintock speaks at a news conference on "Taxpayers Protection Alliance on Trade Promotion Authority" on June 10th, 2015. Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Corbis

The toxic Republican dynamic in the House has no immediate fix. Boehner's likely replacement, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, is already drawing fire from the right. Radio host Mark Levin blasted him as "Eric Cantor with 10 less IQ points" — a take echoed by Labrador: "Cantor, I thought, was a better leader."

Nor does it change the clash of political imperatives that divides House and Senate Republicans. During the Planned Parenthood standoff, McConnell bristled at the incompetence of House insurgents for demanding an "exercise in futility."

If Tea Partiers look at politics like football, McConnell thinks like a chess player; he sees no purpose in reckless attacks his opponent will easily foil. McConnell is plotting a long game — seeking to preserve GOP control of Congress and gain the presidency. He believes the 2016 election can open a window for the Republicans — like President Obama enjoyed in the first two years of his presidency — when bold GOP initiatives could become realistic, including defunding Planned Parenthood.

But to build to that moment of political power, the GOP must first defend Senate seats in places like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Unlike Freedom Caucus members, these Republicans can't go full Trump on every issue and expect to be re-elected in 2016.

The danger to the rest of us is much closer at hand. The budget measure passed in September is temporary — expiring in December, just as the federal government is forecast to hit the debt ceiling. This raises the specter of a Christmas only a Scrooge could love: with Washington shuttered and the nation defaulting on our debts.

Over the horizon, it's not difficult to imagine how the establishment GOP solves its Freedom Caucus problem — by coming at these obstructionists with guns blazing. The Chamber of Commerce has vowed it will avenge Boehner by targeting uncooperative GOP House incumbents in the 2016 primaries, seeking to repeat its success of pacifying the GOP Senate. The establishment doesn't require total victory; it just needs to flip enough seats to assure the next Republican speaker a lockstep 218-vote majority.

But in the near term, America should brace for chaos — with Republican infighting jeopardizing not only the nation's credit, but funding for our roads and bridges, our veterans and the most vulnerable among us. Boehner was a unique politician: the son of a barback, most at ease at the country club. "He had unique skills bridging irreconcilable groups of Republicans and averting utter disaster," says Ornstein, the congressional scholar. "Nobody else, starting with Kevin McCarthy, has the ability to do it." The Freedom Caucus members have been emboldened by their coup, and anti-establishment presidential candidates will egg them on. This tiny band of radicals — who have built careers on hatred of government — won't be deterred until they've shaken the very foundation of the people's House.

x