Webster’s Boehner challenge plays well in Florida

Webster’s Boehner challenge plays well in Florida

By Hastings Wyman –

The challenge to House Speaker John Boehner’s reelection at the opening of the 114th Congress lost by an overwhelming margin, with 216 Republicans remaining loyal to their leader, to 24 who voted for someone else, plus one voting “present.” But the vote achieved the rebels’ purpose of putting the spotlight both on Boehner’s style of leadership and the dissatisfaction of the GOP’s rightwing with the politics of compromise and accommodation.

Florida was the center of the anti-Boehner revolt, with five of its 17 Republican members declining to vote for the speaker’s reelection, including two who ran against Boehner, Dan Webster, who got 12 votes, and Ted Yoho, with 2 votes.

Webster’s challenge was as much procedural as ideological, focusing on the decision-making process among House Republicans. “We have a lot of talented people in this Congress and we can avoid a lot of unintended consequences if we just included them,” Webster told the Tampa Bay Times after the vote.

While the relatively large number of anti-Boehner votes from Florida may reduce the state’s clout in Congress, it plays well back home in the Sunshine State, where Boehner is unpopular with much of the GOP base and Webster is highly regarded.

Webster’s quixotic challenge is “very good for him,” says a longtime Tallahassee GOP insider, who notes that Webster’s action as “not atypical” for him. In the legislature, where he served as both House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader, he talked about how he was “going to ‘flatten the power pyramid’… If the process is good, the rest will be okay. He’s an engineer by trade and an engineer in legislation.”

Florida political analyst Barney Bishop says Webster is “a real principled guy” who believes in “accountability and responsibility… He’s not a revolutionary.” Moreover, Webster has been a major player in Florida politics, becoming the first Republican House Speaker in the state’s history, so he’s a known quantity to the state’s GOPers.

He is also a strong ally of Jeb Bush. “When Jeb was governor,” says Bishop, “he had very, very good relations with the House Speaker.” So although Bush “positions himself as more centrist,” says political scientist Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida, his association with Webster “probably helps Bush” in that it appeals to the state’s Tea Partiers and their allies.

Moreover, consistent with his public persona, Webster does not view Boehner with enmity. “I was in this to try to influence the process… John Boehner is a friend,” Webster told the Tampa Bay Times. Indeed, although Boehner removed him from the House Rules Committee, Webster has since met with the Speaker and asked to be put back on.

Webster’s request, however, may be falling on deaf ears, in part because Webster has not ruled out another bid for Speaker. “One goal is to make the process better,” Webster told The Hill, “If someone else will do that, I’m happy to guide them. If no one else will do that, I’m willing to step up and do it.”

While Webster focused on process, his challenge also served the purposes of the GOP’s rightwing, who believe Boehner’s leadership, his “process,” has promoted a less-than-staunch opposition to President Obama’s policies. Webster has been generally conservative, but he has a center-right voting record and has not been strongly identified with the Tea Party wing of the GOP. “He is a Christian conservative in the best meaning of that,” says a longtime friend (R). “He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, but he lives it. He’s a good man.”

But despite Webster’s non-firebrand reputation, conservatives now see him as a major ally. Since the GOP’s rightwing is likely to continue to be a major player in the House during this Congress, particularly on such issues as immigration, spending, and taxes, Webster’s losing challenge will almost certainly give him a higher profile in Washington and enhance his already good reputation in Florida.

Yoho, in contrast to Webster, “is a burn-the-palace kind of guy,” says one source. When the roll was called in the vote for speaker, he yelled out “YOHO!” However, he has also been conciliatory since the vote. “There is no fight,” Yoho told the Washington Post, and called Boehner “a true conservative.” He has also made lemonade from the lemon of defeat, using his rebellion as an email fundraising tool.

There is talk that court-ordered redistricting could make Webster’s district more Democratic, in which case his anti-Boehner stance could be more problematic. Democrats are hoping that Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, who lost to Webster in 2014 by 4 points, will run again. But even if Boehner and his allies cut off their contributions to Webster, he won’t lack for financial support from the GOP right, for whom, says The Hill, he has become “a rock star.” Stay tuned.