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Kevin McCarthy’s GOP extremism problem is a very bad omen

The precarious balance in power is all but certain to persist, breeding more division and worsening gridlock.
Image: The Capitol building in Washington seen through a fence.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

On Tuesday, the last act of the 2022 midterms will play out as Georgia voters decide between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker. No matter the result, it will bring to an end an election cycle that saw close to $17 billion in campaign expenditures and apocalyptic warnings of democracy on death’s door. Yet with the smoke all but cleared, the end result is a country as hopelessly divided as it was before Election Day.

It’s true, of course, that control of the House of Representatives will have shifted from Democrats to Republicans, but the GOP’s gain will be around 10 seats. Indeed, the main takeaway from the midterm results was frustration for Republicans and a sigh of relief from Democrats that the results didn’t turn out worse.

It’s easy to say that America has never been this divided but less noted is that we’ve never been so narrowly divided.

In the Senate, the top five midterm races (Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin and Ohio) saw an estimated $1.3 billion in campaign spending. If Warnock prevails in Georgia, only one of those five seats will have changed parties. In the governor’s races, Democrats picked up three states and lost another, creating a close-to-even 26-24 divide.

As Walter Shapiro points out in The New Republic, “Since the Civil War, there never have been back-to-back congressional elections in which the margins in both the House and the Senate were this tight.” It’s easy to say that America has never been this divided, but less noted is that we’ve never been so narrowly divided. Ironically, that precarious balance is breeding more division and worsening the gridlock.

Take, for example, what’s playing out in the halls of Congress right now — Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy’s desperate effort to get the 218 votes he needs to become speaker of the House. With a razor-thin majority, McCarthy needs every vote he can get, including from the party’s most extreme members. Already, a handful have publicly refused to support McCarthy.

That has put McCarthy in the unenviable position of having to negotiate with the extremists. He’s threatened to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and vowed to throw Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell, Ilhan Omar and Adam Schiff off their congressional committees to win over Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. (He’s also pledged to restore Greene's committee assignments.) McCarthy has also promised to lift all COVID restrictions in the House, end proxy voting and even remove the metal detectors installed off the House floor after Jan. 6. And while Senate Republicans were happy to criticize Trump’s recent meeting with a pair of antisemitic cretins, McCarthy refused to do so — no doubt in part because most of his members reside in districts where Trump remains popular. 

Even if McCarthy is successful — and considering the lack of speaker alternatives, he probably will be — he will have overcome one obstacle only to find a larger minefield in front of him. The coddling of Republican extremists will not end with one vote. It will continue for as long as McCarthy is speaker. On practically every issue, he will have to navigate the same choppy waters. This will be bad for McCarthy, but it will be worse for the country because when McCarthy is held hostage by GOP extremists, that means the House is held hostage by GOP extremists, which means all of Congress will be held hostage, which in turn means … well, you get the idea. And even if Senate Democrats, with a possible one-seat majority, are able to find common ground it won’t matter much because little of the legislation they pass will go anywhere in the House.

After three straight national elections, each of which has been called the “most important of our lifetimes,” neither party has gained any significant advantage.

Of course, McCarthy could ignore the extremists and cut deals with Democrats, but see the point above about the country’s bitter political divisions. McCarthy will lose more than just the far right if he starts negotiating with the enemy. And with most congressional Republicans holding seats in solidly red districts, where rank-and-file GOP voters view Democrats as a notch above Satan, there isn’t much incentive for his caucus to go along with him.

This is perhaps the greatest irony of America’s narrow political divide. Because the parties (more Republicans than Democrats) are so indebted to their extreme wings, it’s that much harder for them to pivot to the political center for fear of losing the true believers. Since most Democrats and Republicans run and win in districts that are either solidly blue or solidly red, there is little incentive to do anything but be partisan.

After three straight national elections, each of which has been called the “most important of our lifetimes,” neither party has gained any significant advantage. If anything, both parties have only consolidated their political standing. Democrats have strengthened their hold in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Republicans are now the clear favorites in Florida, North Carolina, Iowa and Ohio. The only clear swing states are Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, though the latter two may ever so slightly lean blue.

As a result, it’s become next to impossible for either party to win on the other one’s turf. In 2020, only one senator won a state that went for the other party’s presidential candidate (Susan Collins in Maine). In 2022, it happened only in Wisconsin and by less than 30,000 votes

Shapiro argues that “sooner or later, American politics has to move off the knife edge.” He might be right, but it’s increasingly difficult to see how and when. The next election may only intensify the sorting: Democrats have several Senate incumbents in red states (Montana, Ohio and West Virginia) who are on the ballot in 2024, while Republicans have a host of House members in blue states like New York, California and Michigan.

As for the White House, President Joe Biden, for all his low favorables, is still the incumbent, and incumbent presidents usually get re-elected. So the next election could see the presidency remain in Democratic hands, the House and Senate flip, and nothing get done, again, for two years. Perhaps with different Republican leaders, things could be different, but we’re not likely to find out. As long as the likely next speaker of the House is offering more fealty to Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump than to millions and millions of Americans who would prefer a more normal politics, America will remain a very divided country.