WASHINGTON — House Republicans feel growing pressure to steer firmly right on key issues, thanks to changes in primary-election politics that are complicating Congress’ ability to solve big problems.
Independent research supports the belief by these lawmakers that they owe their jobs to increasingly conservative activists, and that it’s safer than ever to veer right on many subjects rather than seek compromise with Democrats.
On the flip side, House Democrats face a more liberal-leaning electorate in their own primary elections. But the trend is less dramatic for Democrats, whose supporters are more open to compromise to help government work, polls show. And Republican control of the House makes the GOP dynamic more consequential.
The House’s recent struggles to handle once-routine tasks — such as passing a bipartisan farm bill and raising the federal debt limit — partly stem from the millions of Republican primary voters who elect representatives with stern warnings not to compromise with Democrats. It’s also a reason that efforts to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws face problems in the House, where Republicans quickly dismissed the Senate’s bipartisan approach.
In interviews, House Republicans often cite worries about a possible challenge from the right in their next primary. Many of them represent districts so strongly Republican that it’s all but impossible for the party’s nominee to lose a general election to a Democrat. Also, these lawmakers say, it’s highly unlikely that a moderate Republican can wrest the party’s nomination from a conservative incumbent.
“There aren’t a whole lot of moderate Republicans who participate in the primary in a conservative district,” said Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas.
That leaves many House Republicans with only one prerequisite to assure their re-election: Never give a hard-charging conservative enough room on the right to mount a viable challenge in the primary.
In practice, the task doesn’t seem so hard. Only six House Republicans lost their re-election primaries last year. Half of them fell to fellow incumbents in redrawn districts that forced two colleagues to oppose each other. The other three lost to challengers with strong tea party support.
Rep. Jean Schmidt’s loss was instructive. A conservative by almost any measure, the three-term Ohioan was attacked nonetheless for voting to raise the federal debt ceiling and for giving President Barack Obama a peck on the cheek as he entered the House for his 2012 State of the Union address.