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.