Like the Dr. Victor Frankenstein character in the old movies, Republicans looking at the wreckage of the American Health Care Act were in fact undone by a monster of their own creation.
Born from hyper-gerrymandered district lines created in the wake of the Republicans’ sweeping victories in the 2010 midterm election, this political Frankenstein’s monster personified by the far-right House Freedom Caucus, now threatens the GOP’s ability to govern. To understand how the monster brought down the American Health Care Act last week, it’s worth looking back to 2008.
Eight years ago, Democrats thought they were invincible. They had elected Barack Obama with solid governing majorities in both the House and Senate. Meanwhile, a majority of governorships and statehouses were controlled by Democrats.
While Democrats were thumping our chests in Washington, Republicans shrugged their shoulders. They decided to fan out across the country, build benches of local Republican candidates to defeat Democratic governors and Democratic state legislators and seize control of the once-every-10-years process of redistricting. They knew the lines that shaped both congressional districts and state legislative districts were decided mostly in state capitals. They invested heavily in consultants, polling and non-stop ads to knock off local Democrats.
The plan worked, and better than Republicans could have ever imagined. Not only did Republicans win 63 House seats and six Senate seats, but Republicans won control of 29 governorships and 680 state legislative seats, the greatest gain for any party since the post-Watergate elections in 1974. With that came control of both houses of 25 state legislatures and the ability to control redistricting to draw congressional maps that built a firewall around House Republicans for a decade.
Projects like REDMAP (The Republican State Leadership Committee’s Redistricting Majority Project) used this to maximum effect. They used software that utilized advanced data analytics to create districts in which the result of the election was a foregone conclusion. As President Donald Trump might say, it created a “big, beautiful wall” that even the swinging pendulum of politics could not crack. In 2012, when I chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democratic candidates received about 1.5 million more votes than Republicans nationwide. Yet, we remained deep in the minority after picking up just eight seats in the House of Representatives. Republicans had it all figured out.
But what Republicans didn’t realize was that the maps they drew would come back to haunt them. They drew districts so far to the right that a Republican victory in November was a foregone conclusion. However, the real election happened in the primaries as far-right challengers began taking out moderate Republicans and a single act of compromise could become a political death sentence.
My first Republican colleague to find this out was South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, who lost his primary for the sin of admitting that he believed in human-caused climate change. In 2014, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a primary to an insurgent challenger because the right wing in his district was angry that he had voted to raise the debt ceiling and supported a Republican version of the Dream Act. The message to Republicans was clear: compromise and lose the nomination. The party moved further to the right.
And this debate has evolved to where it is now: moderate House Republicans (who are absolutely not moderate by the standards set not even that long ago) opposed the American Health Care Act because they believed it went too far and the Tea Party-inspired House Freedom Caucus opposed it because they believed it did not go far enough. The defeat of the bill is a grave embarrassment for both Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan. But the fact remains, they defeated themselves. And they might very well continue to defeat themselves because Republicans in 2010 created a monster that has grown too big to be controlled with torches and pitchforks.
Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman, is chairman of the Long Island University Global Institute.