A slight majority of the would-be “no” votes came from House members who were more moderate than the average Republican. Indeed, it seemed in the final days that more and more of the no votes were coming from the more moderate wing of the party. There are 110 GOP representatives who rate as more conservative than the average Republican House member, and only 23 of them opposed the AHCA or expressed reservations about it.
Those conservatives who said they were against the AHCA, or at least had issues with it, had a key thing in common. Twenty of the 23 were in the lower right-hand quadrant. This quadrant represents more conservative members who also have negative scores on the second dimension of DW-Nominate. Congressional scholar Sean Theriault calls this dimension “partisan warfare,” suggesting that it identifies legislators who are more interested in scoring political points than in crafting policy.2 Negative scores seem to indicate members who are more anti-establishment and less willing to compromise. The second dimension helps define the Freedom Caucus. It’s visible on this updated version of a chart from 2015 showing how those who were part of the Freedom Caucus at the time lined up on the two dimensions of DW-Nominate scores.
Yes, the caucus is further to the right than other Republicans, but it also has mostly negative second-dimension scores. Put another way, for a lot of members a negative second-dimension score indicates a penchant for putting ideology over a functioning party[emphasis added]. Many of the no votes for then-Speaker Boehner’s re-election to the speakership in 2015, for example, came from members with negative second-dimension scores.
Boehner was pushed out despite being slightly more conservative than the average House Republican. His problem was that the Freedom Caucus thought he compromised too much. Eventually, Boehner got fed up and resigned. After that, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy folded his campaign to replace Boehner as speaker because he ran into issues mostly with members with negative second-dimension scores. McCarthy, of course, was only the majority leader because the previous majority leader, Eric Cantor, who had a positive second-dimension score, was defeated in a primary because he was too willing to compromise. Cantor’s replacement, David Brat, who has a negative second-dimension score, was a leading opponent of the AHCA.
Trump seemed to know that the Freedom Caucus would be a problem early on but didn’t appear to have learned from the past failures of Republican leaders. Yes, he met with Freedom Caucus members in the White House and called up members individually to try to get their votes. But Trump and Ryan were willing to make only so many policy concessions. As far as the Freedom Caucus was concerned, those concessions were not enough. Tim Alberta’s reporting for Politico reveals that Trump instead told them to vote for the AHCA for the good of the party. His phone calls to individual members relied mostly on charm and not on convincing them of the merits of the policy. He even seemed to threaten Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows’s re-election bid.