The battle to succeed Speaker John Boehner following his sudden resignation just took another surprising turn when his would-be successor, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), suddenly dropped out of the race when he came under fire from the party's most extreme right wing for not being conservative enough.
This is certain to move the House GOP leadership farther to the right and away from the overwhelming majority of Jewish voters.
When it comes to the Jewish community, Republicans are essentially a one-issue party. Boehner, like many in his caucus, has been a strong supporter of Israel, but on the domestic agenda there’s a precipitous drop in appeal.
The Freedom Caucus only counts about 40 of the 247 Republicans in this Congress, but they are holding the rest of their colleagues hostage. The next speaker needs 218 votes to get the job but without the other 40 he is likely to face the same fate that drove Boehner to quit mid-term.
They sent him home with growing rebellion, demands that he go along with their most extreme positions, including shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood funding and threatening the full faith and credit of the U.S. government by refusing to raise the federal debt limit to allow the government to keep paying its debts that this and other Congresses have incurred.
Boehner's final straw was the far right's demand to shut down the government unless federal funding for Planned Parenthood were eliminated. Although not a federal cent going to the organization pays for abortions, that was irrelevant to the conservatives who decided to make that their big wedge issue against Democrats.
By three-to-one margins, Jewish voters support a woman’s right to abortion, contraception and family planning.
The influential “values voters” of the religious Right are demanding that the next speaker and the next GOP presidential candidate share their uncompromising views on abortion, gay marriage and other hot button social issues.
Similar wide gaps between the far right and the Jewish mainstream also exist on issues like global warming, environmental and consumer protection, health care reform, Medicare and Social Security funding, immigration reform, aid to education, food stamps and more.
The sword the extremists hold over more pragmatic conservatives is a threat of primary challenges from the farther right. For proof they point to former Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader who wasn’t conservative enough for the tea-baggers and was soundly defeated by a GOP primary challenger from the farther right, David Brat. That left his colleagues stunned and scared of similar fates.
Ironically, had Cantor paid more attention to his district, he might today be the first Jewish speaker in history. He was the only Jewish Republican in the 113th Congress and the highest-ranking Jew ever in either the House or Senate.
The GOP can count on a substantial segment of Orthodox Jewish voters, a small but growing minority who identify with their hardline positions on Israel and on domestic social issues. But how much farther the party can move toward the extreme right and still retain support of wealthy Jewish conservatives who have been bankrolling it remains to be seen.
The greatest challenge facing the next speaker will be healing the rift between the pragmatic conservatives and the scorched-earth conservatives. When Republicans won control of both the House and Senate after last year’s election they said it was an opportunity show the nation they could govern and their key to winning back the White House.
Instead they've been moving rapidly in the opposite direction.