Can a Party Divided Against Itself Stand?

After a historic deadlock in the speaker of the House vote, the GOP’s electoral future is uncertain


On Jan. 6, 2023, exactly two years after the infamous insurrection led by far-right groups, the House saw yet another unprecedented event — Republican Speaker-to-be Kevin McCarthy fell short of the absolute majority requirement for the 14th consecutive time. Finally, on the 15th vote, McCarthy was elected speaker of the House with 216 of the possible 428 votes (some Republican members refusing to vote for McCarthy were convinced to vote “present,” reducing the number needed for a majority). 

Americans gawked at the unprecedented spectacle, and late-night TV hosts had a field day at the expense of the Republican Party. But it’s worth considering: What does a failure to reach consensus at a level unheard of since before the Civil War mean for the GOP?

Before answering that question, it’s important to look at the underlying factors that led to this particular situation. The cracks within the Republican Party were first displayed during the 2022 midterms with an abysmal showing in a highly anticipated election cycle. This was an especially telling sign of the party divide, since historical data stretching all the way back to World War II has shown that the presidential ruling party (in this case, Democrats) almost always sees a significant drop in their seats in both the House and Senate. 

Democrats maintained their control over the Senate, and poor performances by extremist candidates supported by former President Donald Trump led to a much slimmer GOP majority in the House. The few far-right radicals who did manage to squeak through, who refer to themselves as the “Freedom Caucus,” now hold the most power, as the Republican Party needs to appeal to its demands in order to pass anything on the GOP’s agenda. 

The caucus already knew that McCarthy would do anything to satiate his long-held desire to become speaker of the House. He was minority leader in 2019, groveled before Trump last year and moved into the office of the speaker well before the first vote for the position was held. This inability to conceal his longing for the position has left him a phantom in power, having already given many concessions to a group who will hold everyone hostage as long as they remain in the political spotlight. 

Just like voting for the speaker, all bills that pass through the House need a simple majority to move along the legislative chain — but this may prove to be a difficult task. If only a single member of the House communicating feelings of “distrust” in McCarthy is enough to put a reelection in motion, how does he plan on unifying the party to vote on anything?

Take, for example, the debt ceiling. Every year, the House must vote to raise the ceiling to prevent the country from defaulting on its loans and going into economic chaos that would ripple into the global markets. Extremist members of the GOP have already expressed hesitation to raise the debt ceiling unless the deficit comes out of the few remaining, fundamental social welfare programs in the country, which is something the more moderate members of the party are unlikely to agree with. Add to the mix the GOP’s paper-thin majority, and it is highly likely that the result is a frozen, chaotic House that could quickly create a large-scale economic fallout. 

Only time will tell if the GOP will realize its shortcomings out of sheer motivation to do well in the next election cycle.

To better visualize what is going on, think of the Republican House as a rubber band, the ends of which are being pulled in opposite directions by its members — the radicals and the moderates. Without a strong speaker, one who holds some sort of organizing power within the group to mediate this tug-of-war, it is only a matter of time before the band snaps. 

As it stands right now, American citizens are in for a few months of passionate showboating that will see the internal rift between the moderate and radical members of the GOP deepen without an effective speaker. 

For obvious reasons, this is a bad situation to be in, not only because an inefficient political system is nothing to be proud of, but also because the 2024 presidential elections are right around the corner. Just as the party had difficulty obtaining a majority in the House and fell short of controlling the Senate, it may be a struggle for radical and moderate members of the GOP to unite around one presidential candidate.

From a purely statistical point of view, McCarthy’s decision to put personal ambition above all else and consolidate power within the hands of the Freedom Caucus does not present a pretty picture for the upcoming elections. Republicans are losing some of their primary voter blocks, including educated suburban individuals and independent voters who lean conservative. Even more telling, split-ticket voting, which is when an individual votes for people from multiple parties, is becoming more prevalent among Republican voters, meaning that the quality of candidates (not just their political party) still matters to voters.

Throw in the public spectacle that the House is going to be over the next few months, and these data points might just get worse. Only time will tell if the GOP will realize its shortcomings out of sheer motivation to do well in the next election cycle.