In the first few years after former President Donald Trump assumed office, he essentially became a one-man litmus test for the Republican Party. Conservatives’ bona fides hinged less on their voting records, and more on their fealty to him.
Then something weird happened. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who worked hard over the years to establish his loyalty to Trump, was suddenly being called a “moderate” as he suffered through more than a dozen unsuccessful votes for House speaker. The defectors who initially refused to vote for him were now part of the “hardline” or “extremist” faction of the party — depending on which news article you read. That group also included Trump boosters who nevertheless said when it came to the speaker vote, the former president should be taking cues from them.
So what does it actually mean to be a “moderate” or “conservative” U.S. House member in the Republican Party of 2023? Don’t look for big policy divides to explain the difference — members are largely unified around an agenda of cutting certain spending programs, limiting abortion and keeping a lid on taxes. That’s not a new phenomenon: Four years ago, when my former colleague Perry Bacon Jr. analyzed what he believed were the five wings of the Republican Party, the categorizations revolved around Trump because, well, Trump defined the party.
The goalposts for what makes a “moderate” versus “conservative” lawmaker are always shifting. But as Republicans settle back into control of the House of Representatives, I set out to update Perry’s analysis — and concluded that while Trump still holds outsized influence over the party, he’s no longer its central pivot point.
Instead, I’d argue that a number of important fissures define the current House congressional GOP — and the embrace of Trump and Trumpism is just one of them. Voting records, ties to the establishment and caucus membership, for instance, all played a role in how I measured Republican House members against one another, drawing on data as well as expert opinion.
I’ll be honest and say that these categories may not be perfect and that there’s a potential for change in just a few years (Perry’s article was only written in 2019!) as loyalties switch and new issues come to the fore. And, as I’ll explain in more detail below, some members have their feet in multiple camps — or at least a pinky toe. Still, I’d put congressional Republicans in five main camps. I’ve ordered from most moderate to most conservative — or extreme:
- These Republicans side with the broader GOP on most issues but are the members most likely to find common ground with Democrats. They’ve been known to attack leadership or their colleagues who are further to the right — or at least disagree with them. They’re often members of bipartisan groups like the Problem Solvers Caucus.
- Prominent members: Reps. David Joyce of Ohio, Young Kim of California, Nancy Mace of South Carolina.
Don’t expect members of this shrinking, often quiet group to rise into notable positions of party leadership anytime soon. “It seems like they’re increasingly becoming an incredibly endangered species,” said Julia Azari, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and political science professor at Marquette University.
Case in point: If I were writing this story last year, I probably would have put former Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez or Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger in this camp. But after both publicly assailed the former president and advocated for his impeachment, neither ran for another term.
These members have to toe a fine line to keep their jobs. They likely won’t agree with the mainstream GOP on everything — just look at how Mace spoke about abortion messaging costing Republicans in the 2022 midterms, or how Joyce said that he’s on the fence about kicking certain Democrats off of Republican-led committees — but expect to see them largely in line with Republicans’ anti-Biden messaging, or be outspoken about things important to their base, like preserving “family values” or slowing inflation. In short, the people I’d put in this category are those who are willing to buck party leadership sometimes — but not so much that they’re in imminent danger of losing their seats. And, in general, their voting records tend to be more moderate compared with other Republicans.
- They’re part of the establishment and/or party leadership but still boast conservative records. They’re sometimes willing to speak out against members to their right, but generally try to be peacekeepers. In a nutshell: These Republicans straddle the line between the moderate and pro-Trump wings of the party.
- Prominent members: Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York, Tom Emmer of Minnesota and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
I would put most Republicans in prominent leadership positions (regardless of whether they’re in the House or Senate) in this group. While they do adhere to some tenets of Trumpism — like admonishing the “fake news” media, at least in Stefanik’s case — they simultaneously need to be seen as having the best interests of the GOP’s ideologically diverse caucus at heart. You likely won’t see these members attacking the former president like more moderate Republicans, or driving a wedge within the caucus like the pro-Trump insurgent wing does. But it’s clear that these members still espouse some type of loyalty to Trump, as they’ve been known to broker deals for him — or on his behalf.
Part of getting to a position of leadership in the first place is moderating your views so that a larger swath of members think you’ll prioritize their interests. In practice, that could mean pushing a fairly traditional Republican agenda, like cutting taxes or entitlements, without wading too much into the culture wars that have animated the furthest right House members. McCarthy is a great example of this. The current House speaker entered Congress as a conservative “Young Gun” but moved toward the middle to help get the position he’s in now, according to Hans Noel, a professor of government at Georgetown University who has researched how Trump shifted the meaning of what it meant to be a conservative.
“At first, [McCarthy] was the upstart person who was challenging things,” Noel told me. “But now he’s been around for a while, and he’s likely realized that, in order to have a career, you have to moderate your positions a bit.” The shift was cosmetic — his policy positions remained largely the same — but his stature within the party grew.
You might be wondering, too, why I put Stefanik in this category, given that she has a fairly moderate voting record. That’s largely because, since entering the lower chamber ahead of the 114th Congress, Stefanik has gotten more conservative. According to ideology metrics based on her voting record, Stefanik went from a fairly moderate member of Congress between 2015 and 2021, to a more conservative one from 2021 to 2023. Plus, she’s explicitly embraced Trump as she’s climbed into leadership roles over the past few years — which means she arguably embodies elements of both this wing and the pro-Trump insurgent wings.
One difficulty I ran into in writing about this group, though, was in pinpointing where its loyalties really lie. Are they loyal to Trump? Or to the GOP as a whole? Politicians often take their cues from leadership in their own party, and if Trump were no longer in the picture, it’s unclear where members of this faction would swing.
- These are the conservatives who likely align with the Freedom Caucus ideologically but make fewer waves. They’re the preferred leaders of the Tea party conservatives and pro-Trump insurgent factions.
- Prominent members: Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina.
Here, you have the members whom far-right members are comfortable with in leadership roles. In fact, I’d go one step further and argue that they’re the glue that holds Freedom Caucus and the conservative establishment together, as this wing won’t broker all that much with Democrats and/or the more moderate GOP House members.
That dynamic was on full display during the House speaker fight, when Scalise was floated as a possible consensus speaker who could speak to the 20 anti-McCarthy Republicans. On average, these members’ voting records tend to be more conservative compared with Republicans in other top leadership positions.
These members might not agree with everything the Freedom Caucus proposes, though. For example, Scalise, for his part, has sometimes quietly staked out neutral or mainstream positions when his colleagues have gone the other way. For example, he broke with most other top House leaders when he didn’t get involved in Cheney’s GOP primary. And, perhaps most notably, as Freedom Caucus members continued to promote the false claim that it was fraudulent, McHenry voted to certify the 2020 election’s results.
Tea party conservative
- Here are the Freedom Caucus members who are driven by ideology. They’re often associated with conservative groups like the Club for Growth.
- Prominent members: Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Byron Donalds of Florida, Chip Roy of Texas.
Members of this group are some of the most conservative in the House. In fact, I’d lump a good chunk of the Freedom Caucus into this wing. But what I think differentiates these members from, say, the pro-Trump insurgent (more on them below) is that Tea party conservatives are more clearly motivated by ideology — e.g., supporting less government spending — than by grievance.
Tea party conservatives can veer between fiery House floor speeches, wonky strategizing over procedural quirks and breezy talks with members of the various GOP factions. Their brand of conservatism, at times, might compel them to break form with Republican allies. For example, when Trump said in a tweet that four Democratic members of Congress — all women of color — should “go back” to “where they came from,” Roy denounced his actions. Jordan has had streaks of independence, too, including, in June when he broke from Freedom Caucus members and voted to honor Capitol police for their response to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Members of this group support Trump, too, but their loyalties aren’t tied to a specific leader. And they often strategically show their support for the former president (i.e., vociferously defending him during impeachment hearings), since they arguably also want to increase their power in the House. Yes, members of this group can be obstructionists at times, but their politics are often guided by a strong adherence to their ideas — regardless of whether it is politically expedient or in line with Trump’s wishes.
- These are the rabble-rousers. They’re led by Trump but largely avoid criticizing him publicly, even if they don’t fully embrace his views. Most of them voted against certifying President Biden’s 2020 electoral victory. Their beliefs are malleable, and more motivated by grievance more than ideology.
- Prominent members: Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
This might not be the biggest wing, but it’s definitely the loudest — and wields a lot of power given the GOP’s narrow House majority. In fact, it’s the members in this camp who made it so difficult for McCarthy to attain the speakership in the first place.
That’s in part because the politicians in this bloc are primarily motivated by grievance and, as such, are not afraid to take on the establishment even if it means being seen as unserious lawmakers by the rest of the caucus and GOP voters. Moreover, since this wing is defined by a fealty to Trump, these members are the most likely to defend anything the former president says or does. Of course, during the vote for House speaker, many in this camp — specifically Gaetz and Boebert — initially refused to vote for McCarthy, even though he was Trump’s chosen candidate. But many of these members had personal quibbles with McCarthy that led to them not wanting him to be speaker. And those intraparty arguments, I’d argue, stand separate from members’ support for Trump. Plus, reporting suggests that Trump helped encourage at least some defectors to come around to voting for McCarthy— or at least voting “present.”
This group’s loyalty to the former president was arguably displayed most prominently during the Jan. 6 investigations. Its members not only diminished the events of that day but have been steadfast in promoting the debunked narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president.
But this bloc is more flexible than it appears. In fact, I’d argue that Greene, at least as of late, is trying to teeter between this category and the far-right establishment (or, at least, I think that’s where she wants to be). This tension was on full display during the House speaker vote, when she publicly chastised ideologically aligned members (like Boebert) for refusing to back McCarthy’s bid.
Azari told me that continued infighting among this group might be a good thing for the larger party. There’s also no incentive for the GOP, she said, to have this insurgent bloc grow in size. “It’s not to Republicans’ benefit for them to be at the forefront of the party,” she said. “They are really not super popular figures with the broader population.”
The speaker fight was just the beginning. I’d expect the fissures between these groups to become more noticeable as long as Republicans hold onto a narrow majority in the House. Up next, we’re likely to see debates over things like whether Democrats should be allowed to have committee seats, whether McCarthy should negotiate with Biden and Democrats over raising the debt ceiling and much more.
But don’t get too cozy with these (albeit imperfect) categorizations. “Over time, conservatives have become more conservative on a number of more nativist, social and racial issues. And they’ve become slightly more moderate on at least some economic issues,” Noel said. “But there could be lots of new issues that come in, and those could become the cleavages that start to shake things up again.”
Author: Alex Samuels