Louisiana Rep. Bill Cassidy was relieved of his Republican leadership role earlier this month, but instead of taking it as a dishonor, he celebrated.
Cassidy’s Senate campaign — he’s running to unseat Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu — dispatched a press release the next week vaunting an Associated Press story about House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California booting him from the whip team for breaking with GOP leaders and voting for a Democratic flood insurance bill.
It may seem counterintuitive for someone seeking higher office to boast about being bumped down the totem pole, but not this election year.
Cassidy is just one example of GOP congressmen distancing themselves from their leaders to inoculate themselves against bruising Republican primary attacks or to better position themselves in the general elections pivotal to deciding control of the Senate. “Self-preservation in a political campaign has to be a priority, and people make a political calculation as to how close they want to align themselves with ... the leadership,” said former Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn. “That’s just a cold political calculation that they have to make for themselves.”
Nine House Republicans are vying for Senate seats this year and, in many cases and for various reasons, have found it necessary to challenge their leadership.
In Cassidy’s case, he sided with Democrats on a flood insurance procedural vote, an issue on which Landrieu, too, has publicly bucked the White House. “He has always put flood insurance ahead of everything else,” Cassidy spokesman John Cummins said. “He put party aside and did what was right for the people of Louisiana.”
In most cases, though, members find themselves running to the right on a backdrop of simmering Republican infighting, with tea party conservative activists backing their own candidates against ones they see as too aligned with the Republican establishment.
“Anyone who is a Washington politician is going to be running away from Washington this cycle,” said former National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Guy Harrison. “Just look at the poll numbers.”
Poll after poll since the October government shutdown has found that seven in 10 voters disapprove of the job congressional Republicans are doing, most recently this month’s McClatchy-Marist Poll, which found the disapproval rate at 72 percent.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio does not fare much better personally. A January Gallup poll found that just 28 percent of respondents approved of his handling of the speakership.
Some congressmen need no impetus to rebel against their leaders. The entire campaign apparatuses of Reps. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, and Paul Broun, R-Ga., seem predicated on combating Boehner and the top GOP brass.
Yet nowhere is the dynamic of Republicans fleeing their leaders more apparent than in the seven-way Georgia GOP primary, where Broun and two other congressmen are among the candidates scrapping for the nomination — and where Boehner recently became an issue.
Broun ripped his primary opponent Rep. Jack Kingston as a “Boehner-Republican” for voting with the speaker too often. “While we all wish that was a reliable measure of conservative, experience has taught that it’s not,” Broun said in a Wednesday statement.
As an Appropriations cardinal, Kingston has in fact voted with leadership on many spending measures. But the pattern shifted recently.
Though he was involved in crafting the measure, Kingston was the lone appropriator from either party to turn his back on leaders last month and vote against the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill to keep the government running. He also voted against the underlying bipartisan budget deal. Unsurprisingly, so did Broun and Rep. Phil Gingrey, the third congressman in that race.
If asked only to vote on the part of the bill he wrote, Kingston would have supported it, said campaign spokesman Chris Crawford. But overall, the package spent too much and so he could not support it. Crawford declined to comment on Broun’s attack.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Cotton, who is the GOP’s presumptive choice to take on Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in November, resisted House leaders’ attempt to tie a vote linking the debt limit to military pensions. In a private meeting earlier this month, he told the Republican Conference that the choice would damn him either way, making him vote either against the military or for a debt limit increase.
Leaders eventually allowed a clean debt limit increase on the floor and separately put forward a bill to avoid slated cuts to military pensions. Cotton, an Army veteran, voted for the military pensions bill and against the debt limit hike.
Cotton, said his spokesman David Ray, is “not afraid to stand up to his own party when he thinks they’re wrong.”
He, and just about every other House-bred Senate candidate, similarly stood up to House leaders when they broached an immigration rewrite earlier this year. Notable among those was Oklahoma candidate Rep. James Lankford, who is the fifth-ranking Republican in the House as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. Montana GOP candidate Rep. Steve Daines told leaders in a private meeting that pushing an overhaul would be bad for his race.
Cassidy and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who is the GOP establishment-backed candidate in West Virginia, also resisted an immigration push, but they voted with leaders on the omnibus bill and the budget deal.
Gingrey said the immigration push shows House leaders were thinking more about positioning the party for a 2016 presidential bid, but it would have been at the expense of GOP Senate candidates this year.
“I think it’s an advantage to the incumbent Democratic senators who represent red states today,” he said. “It almost seems to me there’s more concern over putting our party in a position to win in 2016, but to me that’s all for naught if we lose in 2014.”
(Note: Story has been updated to reflect one of eight candidates in the Georgia GOP Senate primary dropping out over the weekend. It is now a seven-way primary.)