WASHINGTON (AP) — It was the thing that was supposed to make Rep. Jim Jordan the 56th speaker of the House.
An onslaught of pressure from the Republican Party base, allies predicted, would compel the GOP’s moderate and establishment members to support Jordan, a hero of the far-right, and help him secure the votes for the gavel.
But as the pressure campaign devolved this week into death threats against lawmakers and their families, something unexpected happened: Positions hardened, and a ragtag coalition of roughly 20 House Republicans rose up to deny Jordan the speakership.
In doing so, they defied a belief of many in Washington — that moderates have no backbone.
“Bullying don’t work,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican centrist who has led the opposition to Jordan’s nomination.
Still, Bacon said the harassing text messages and phone calls have taken a toll. His wife slept with a loaded gun near her bedside one night. Other Republicans said their families have been threatened. And every lawmaker who voted against Jordan has received a barrage of angry phone calls and messages.
Still, they vowed Thursday to not back down as Jordan tried for a third day to win the 217 Republican votes he needs to become speaker.
It’s just the latest twist in the contentious intra-party feud that has consumed House Republicans since the unprecedented removal of Kevin McCarthy more than two weeks ago. Hopelessly divided, Republicans have been arguing for weeks over how to mend their fractured majority. The death threats have only worsened the tension, with lawmakers feeling their colleagues are partially to blame for the outpouring of bile.
After Rep. Drew Ferguson’s family started receiving death threats for his vote against Jordan, the Georgia Republican said in a statement that he would not support “a bully” for speaker. He said the threats were “unacceptable, unforgivable, and will never be tolerated.”
For ten months, the ultra-conservatives of the Republican Conference have driven the House agenda, leveraging their position in the GOP’s thin majority to demand that their wishes be met. Kevin McCarthy struggled with them for 15 rounds in January to win the speaker’s gavel and ultimately had it wrested away by hard-right holdouts.
As Republicans choose their next speaker, however, the just-say-no tactic is coming from new corners of the Republican conference: moderate GOP lawmakers who represent politically purple congressional districts, senior members of the House Appropriations Committee, and loyalists to GOP leadership figures like McCarthy and Majority Leader Steve Scalise.
Many Republicans were angered last week by how the Freedom Caucus seemed to once again get what it wanted by refusing to support Scalise’s bid for speaker, forcing him to drop out and clearing the way for Jordan to make a run.
Jordan had several advantages. The hard-charging Ohio Republican, who helped found the House Freedom Caucus, had former President Donald Trump’s backing, as well as support from conservative commentators and influencers like Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Meanwhile, Jordan tried to win over more moderate Republicans by casting himself as a unifier who would listen to their concerns. He told his fellow Republicans he would not take the speaker vote to the House floor unless he had secured 217 of their votes.
He quickly broke that promise, scheduling a floor vote Tuesday and forcing the holdouts to publicly state their opposition and face the political fallout. Jordan and his allies believed the public vote would quickly wear down their opposition.
Rep. Thomas Massie, a Jordan ally, predicted at the time that the holdouts would be put through a “meat grinder” of pressure and cave by the end of the week.
“I don’t think any of these 20 have the stomach for forcing that vote over and over,” Massie said.
That proved wrong. Opposition to Jordan only grew. A few more Republicans voted against Jordan during a second ballot Wednesday, and others suggested their support would soon run out. The pressure campaign had backfired.
“As soon as you try to influence by getting outside groups to try to intimidate, in that nanosecond, it’s over,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee who helped lead the opposition to Jordan.
Jordan, for his part, has tried to stop the threats and pressure. After Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks said in a statement that she had received “credible death threats” after voting against him Wednesday, Jordan condemned the threats and called for unity.
“Stop. It’s abhorrent,” he said on social media.
But colleagues have watched for years as Jordan and his allies denounced their legislative work while playing to the party’s base. They were unmoved.
“This is a matter of picking the person who’s going to lead your party,” said Rep. Steve Womack, a senior Republican who opposed Jordan. “This is more interpersonal.”
Womack said he was done with Jordan after he gave a tepid concession when Scalise initially won the Republican Conference nomination for speaker. Though Jordan eventually offered support for Scalise, Womack felt Jordan had given a “dog whistle” to the House Freedom Caucus to withhold their support.
Womack felt it doomed Scalise’s bid for speaker, and he said he told Jordan that his concession speech was “the most unacceptable and egregious treatment of a fellow colleague I’ve ever witnessed.”
As Republicans meet for hours on end trying to work past their grudges, lawmakers are flailing for a path forward that would allow the House to once again do its work. The White House is requesting wartime funding for allies Israel and Ukraine, and the government will enter a shutdown unless Congress passes funding legislation by mid-November.
One senior Republican, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said he sympathized somewhat with the holdouts.
“They feel like they’ve been pushed into a position where it seems to be the only thing these guys understand. And so you start treating them the way they have been treating us,” he said.
Still, Cole has also urged them to set aside those tactics to unite around a speaker.
“The problem is, you know that makes you feel pretty good … but it doesn’t get us moving any closer to a solution.”
Associated Press reporters Kevin Freking, Farnoush Amiri and Lisa Mascaro contributed reporting.