The just-completed regular session of the West Virginia Legislature saw the emergence of a hard-right faction of the Republican Party that was able to significantly impact lawmaking. The influence of the deeply conservative wing was most evident in the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a 64-36 advantage.
At least 13 Republicans are self-identified members of the Tea Party, while another five members lean that way. Two Tea Party members and another two Republican delegates are also members of the Liberty Caucus.
Together they share a passion for limited government and an adherence to the U.S. Constitution, putting those principles above traditional party politics. Delegate Jim Butler (R-Mason) started a Tea Party chapter in his home county and is now serving his second term in the Legislature.
“Several of us just look at Constitutional issues and freedom as being our priority,” Butler told me on Talkline Tuesday. “As far as being a caucus, I’m not sure it’s that official; it’s just people who have priorities that might be different than others.”
Official or not, the Tea Party/Liberty Caucus delegates collectively have influence.
They opposed legislation crafted by House Energy Committee Chairman Woody Ireland (R-Ritchie), a fellow Republican, establishing a method for Marcellus Shale gas rights holders to be forced into the production pool, even if they objected.
However 20 republicans—two-thirds of them from the Tea Party/Liberty Caucus—joined 29 Democrats in voting against the bill. It died on a tie vote on the final day.
Republicans who supported HB 2688 were furious with the handful of Democrats who initially supported the bill, but then switched to the opposition on the final vote. However, the GOP is the majority party and could have prevailed with just a couple more votes from their side of the aisle.
There were other examples of the influence of the conservative wing.
The Tea Party/Liberty Caucus members successfully pushed through controversial legislation eliminating the need for a permit and training class to carry a concealed weapon. It passed both chambers and is now on the Governor’s desk.
Conservative House members advocated for a bill authorizing the sale and consumption of raw milk, arguing it was a freedom of choice issue. That bill also passed the House and Senate.
The elimination of Common Core education standards was not part of the House Republican leadership’s agenda, but the Tea Party/Liberty Caucus faction brought it to the front burner. HB 2934 passed the House 75-19, but was eventually gutted in the Senate and died on the last day.
The hard right delegates gave Speaker Tim Armstead a few headaches, but he didn’t try to rein them in, which Delegate Butler appreciated. “I have been really proud of our caucus and Speaker Armstead because he said, ‘If you feel strongly about something, you vote your conscience. You vote to represent your district.’”
Majority party factions are a part of political life. The minority party can more easily coalesce around opposition, while being in the majority unleashes pent up, and often divergent, priorities.
If the GOP is going to remain in power, it better get used to it.