President Trump, apparently still frustrated by the opposition from the House Freedom Caucus that helped doom the GOP’s health care bill, threatened to “fight them ... in 2018.” In one of his tweets, he specifically blamed three members of the Freedom Caucus: Ohio’s Jim Jordan, Idaho’s Raul Labrador and North Carolina’s Mark Meadows, the caucus’s chairman.
It was a highly unusual move by a sitting president to so publicly and specifically target members of his own party. And the reference to 2018 had obvious implications: The president might try to prevent the 30-plus members of the Freedom Caucus from winning re-election next year. Should those members be afraid? The data suggests that some of them should be more worried than others.
Of the 32 representatives who have been identified as members of the Freedom Caucus,1 the majority (25 of 32) live in strongly conservative districts, with the member winning by more than 20 percentage points in 2016. So a Republican primary challenge would be the easier way to knock off a Freedom Caucus member.
Trump, however, doesn’t have the same level of sway among Republican voters in every district. In last year’s Republican primaries, Trump won over his long list of rivals in 20 of the 32 Freedom Caucus districts. (Ted Cruz was the winner in nine districts, John Kasich two and Marco Rubio one.)2
|Paul A. Gosar||AZ-4||1||7||8||27||54|
|Ted S. Yoho||FL-3||1||5||21||22||49|
|Jody B. Hice||GA-10||1||4||21||27||40|
|Tom Garrett Jr.||VA-5||0||7||25||20||39|
|Gary J. Palmer||AL-6||0||5||22||25||37|
|Raúl R. Labrador||ID-1||0||7||12||46||33|
There was a wide degree of variance in Trump’s wins. He won about 76 percent of the vote in the West Virginia district of Alex Mooney. The demographics of West Virginia were very favorable to Trump, but the state’s primary also occurred after Cruz and Kasich had dropped out of the race, essentially conceding the nomination to Trump. He won 74 percent of the vote in New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce’s district, but that primary too was well after the nomination battle was truly contested.
Trump won more than 50 percent of the primary vote in four other districts represented by Freedom Caucus members: Arizona’s Paul Gosar, Florida’s Ron DeSantis, Maryland’s Andy Harris and Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry. The primaries in those states occurred while Cruz and Kasich were still actively running.
So using Trump’s primary performance as an imperfect proxy for his pull, these six members should perhaps be most concerned about the White House, either publicly or behind the scenes, backing a primary challenger to them.
Interestingly, none of these six were the major public faces of the Freedom Caucus’s opposition to the health care bill. In the district of North Carolina’s Meadows, the most visible figure in opposition to the Trump health care proposal, Trump won, but narrowly. Cruz received 43 percent of the vote there, compared with Trump’s 48 percent. Jordan of Ohio, another strong opponent of the health care proposal, represents a district where 36 percent of Republicans backed Trump, but 43 percent were behind the state’s governor, Kasich.3
Trump’s worst performance in a Freedom Caucus district was in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, represented by Rod Blum. Trump won just 25 percent of the vote there, compared with Cruz’s 29 percent. This low percentage for Trump may also reflect the large number of candidates who were running in Iowa, which was the first contest of the primary season. Trump was soundly defeated in the district of Idaho’s Labrador, losing by about 13 percentage points to Cruz (33 percent to 46 percent.) And South Carolina’s Mark Sanford has said that Trump’s budget director, Mike Mulvaney, warned him of a potential primary challenge, with Trump’s backing, during a meeting on health care between Sanford and Mulvaney. Trump won Sanford’s district, but barely, carrying 29 percent of the vote, compared with Rubio’s 26 percent.
Trump, in other words, has specifically called out some of the Freedom Caucus members he might have the least leverage over.
In terms of the general election, Freedom Caucus members generally outperformed Trump. All but five4 won by a larger margin in their districts than Trump did.
|2016 VOTE MARGIN|
|MEMBER||DISTRICT||GOP HOUSE||TRUMP||TRUMP’S RELATIVE PERFORMANCE|
|Raúl R. Labrador||ID-1||+36.4||+38.3||+1.9|
|Ted S. Yoho||FL-3||+16.8||+16.0||-0.8|
|Paul A. Gosar||AZ-4||+42.9||+40.2||-2.7|
|Gary J. Palmer||AL-6||+49.1||+44.7||-4.4|
|Thomas Garrett Jr.||VA-5||+16.7||+11.1||-5.6|
|Jody B. Hice||GA-10||+100.0||+25.5||-74.5|
Trump carried the districts of Virginia’s David Brat and Michigan’s Justin Amash, but only by single-digit margins. Brat and Amash were both strong critics of the Trump health care bill. Amash won by about 13 percentage points more than Trump in his district, Brat about 9 points. Indeed, Amash, at least, does not seem cowed at all:
What does this data not account for? Money and energy. Last year, Kansas’s Roger Marshall defeated then-Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp, with Marshall benefiting from outside groups aligned with the GOP establishment who wanted to knock off Huelskamp and punish him for his breaks with party orthodoxy. A well-organized effort, backed by Trump, to knock off Republican incumbents could be formidable, particularly if the president was willing to publicly campaign against Freedom Caucus members and raise money for their challengers.
It’s not clear how far Trump’s tweets alone can go in forcing Freedom Caucus members to fall in line — we are in truly uncharted territory. We have never before had a president who threatened members of his own party through his Twitter account.
Harry Enten contributed research.