The Freedom Caucus is not just a D.C. phenomenon
By Florian Gawehns
The founding of the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) has arguably been one of the most important developments in recent congressional history. Its members, disgruntled over their lack of influence in the House and the perceived reluctance of the Republican establishment to fight President Obama more forcefully, banded together in 2015 to challenge the speakership of John Boehner (R-OH). HFC membership was conditional on a readiness to vote against the party on procedural matters and even the Speaker himself, and that readiness, coupled with their numerical strength, gave them leverage to shape their party’s direction and gain a seat at the leadership table.
Over the past few years, the Freedom Caucus – recognizing President Trump’s popularity with their conservative voters and realizing that he was their best chance to implement their agenda – transformed from a group championing limited government and fiscal responsibility through procedural hardball into a congressional cheerleading task force for Trump. This helped increase the group’s profile and power even further. Trump recruited two HFC founders as his chiefs of staff, and several leading HFC figures, such as Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-AZ) and former chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH), wholeheartedly supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Yet largely unnoticed is that the HFC’s impact has extended beyond D.C. politics. In 2017, Republican lawmakers in Idaho, New Hampshire and Texas founded Freedom Caucuses of their own, and in the past few weeks a new wave of caucuses have been initiated in state legislatures. The current list of states with a Freedom Caucus in one of their legislative chambers includes the Idaho House, the Mississippi House, the Nevada House, the New Hampshire House, the North Carolina House , the Texas House, the Washington Senate, and the Wyoming House.
In some cases, these new state-level groups may be little more than branding exercises, slapping the “Freedom Caucus” label on a group of legislators who just want to advertise their conservative bona fides. But to the extent that these caucuses act like their congressional parent – blocking bills, using threats as leverage, and driving the GOP’s agenda – their impact on state lawmaking could be profound.
What led Republicans in these state legislative chambers to mimic the House Freedom Caucus? Most are in lower chambers controlled by their party (the Nevada House and Washington Senate have Democratic majorities), but there are many other GOP-led state houses without Freedom Caucuses. Some are in traditionally conservative states, but others are in swing territory, such as New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nevada, Washington. Furthermore, roll call voting data compiled by Nolan McCarty and Boris Shor show that while some are in highly polarized chambers (Texas and Idaho, for instance), others are in less polarized ones (Mississippi and Wyoming).
However, the McCarty and Shor data do indicate that, except for North Carolina, Republicans in state legislatures with Freedom Caucuses are more ideologically heterogenous than comparable state parties. Herein may lie the key to understanding the formation of these factions.
Previous research has identified three core functions of intraparty caucuses: signaling constituents and other stakeholders (touting the groups’ successes), fostering group decision-making to gain bargaining power, and providing selective benefits to its members like access to party leaders and prestigious committee seats. Such caucuses may be especially appealing to conservatives in more divided or diverse parties where they are outnumbered and unable to command much authority.
In almost all the states with these groups, long-standing intraparty disagreements led frustrated conservatives to embrace the Freedom Caucus model. Press releases and media statements issued by state Caucus members frequently emphasize the goals of promoting more conservative policy agendas and serving as an organizational counterweight to their chamber’s current, often more moderate leadership.
Take the Texas House for example. Republican Speaker Joe Straus was initially elected in 2009 by a coalition of Democrats and a minority of Republicans, and he often governed from the center on issues such as budget transparency, education, and infrastructure. Tea Party groups criticized his speakership as out of touch with conservative grassroots, and disgruntled GOP members lamented the dictatorial style of the House’s leadership and the reliance on Democratic votes to pass legislation. In 2017, the Texas House Republicans were more heterogenous than any other House GOP except Wyoming and Colorado.
Conservatives formed a Texas Freedom Caucus in February 2017, and the group played a key role in promoting bills on hot button issues like guns and abortion that were criticized as divisive by moderate and liberal lawmakers. Tensions escalated in May of that year when members of the group, in a maneuver nicknamed the "Mother's Day Massacre", effectively killed more than 100 bills in a single day through dilatory floor procedures.
Having left its mark on the 2017 legislative session, the Texas Freedom Caucus successfully established enough institutional leverage to be rewarded with plum committee positions, and party leaders sought to co-opt the new faction in order to avoid a protracted intraparty revolt. As one Caucus member said about the 2019 session, “The tactics were a lot different this time. You weren’t as much obstructing because you actually had a seat at the table.” A similar dynamic is playing out in other states, with Freedom Caucus legislators demanding positions of institutional power.
The example of the Texas Freedom Caucus illustrates how ideological allies in state legislatures, dissatisfied with the status quo, can create leverage to influence policymaking and gain access to leadership positions. It also shows how the formation of organized caucuses in Congress can inspire similar groups in state chambers. As conservatives in other states consider mimicking the House Freedom Caucus, we may see the HFC’s influence expand not only in national politics but at the state level as well.
Florian Gawehns is a graduate student in political science at the University of Maryland, College Park.