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John Boehner Helped Lead the GOP to a Midterm Landslide. So Conservatives Are Trying to Overthrow Him, Naturally.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The failed sneak attack on John Boehner’s speakership two years ago came at a time when a sneak attack had a certain logic to it. Without a plausible successor to align behind, and thus no sustained clamor for a new speaker, the only way to oust Boehner was to deny him the simple majority he needed to win another term, and then muscle him out. You could argue that the element of surprise was preferable to mounting a public campaign and tipping the party into chaos.

If House conservatives had been better organized, they might’ve actually pulled it off. Republicans had just lost an election badly. The Republican House majority had been diminished to the point where a small, determined group of rebels could conspire to force a second ballot, and a third ballot, and as many ballots as it might take to shake up the leadership ranks. Assuming Boehner would neither seek nor find aid from Democrats, the logic of a voluntary exodus would have become difficult to resist. That’s more or less what Newt Gingrich realized early on after presiding over the poor GOP showing in the 1998 midterms.

Today, a sneak attack is neither plausible, nor theoretically sound. Under Boehner’s leadership, Republicans expanded their majority in the midterm. He has a much bigger cushion this year than he did in 2013. Pulling off a surprise upset wouldn’t be in the cards, even if House conservatives were the adroit operators everyone knows they aren’t.

But that doesn’t speak in any way to the right’s grievances with Boehner, which have grown more severe since November. Boehner pushed a huge spending bill through the House in December and declined to use it as a forum for a fight with President Obama over immigration and the Affordable Care Act. The Republican majority is bigger but so, too, perhaps, is the number of conservatives interested in another potential speaker. The question is whether enough of them are quietly willing to depose Boehner, and whether they can all be enlisted.

Rather than call it a day, the anti-Boehner faction has adopted fresh tactics. The plan they’ve settled upon is clever, intentionally or otherwise, in that they’ve taken the responsibility for identifying and organizing defectors out of their own hands and placed it in the hands of outside activists, who are often better at imposing the right's will on Republican members of Congress than just about any person or group of people within the party.

Instead of plotting behind the scenes, the Boehner defectors are announcing their opposition publicly, in the hope of building a groundswell. Not among members per se, though that is of course the ultimate goal, but among influential grassroots conservatives—Tea Party groups, Erick Erickson, Laura Ingraham—who have genuine sway over indecisive members. On Sunday, David Brat, the conservative who defeated Eric Cantor in a summer primary with Ingraham’s help, announced he is joining the anti-Boehner coalition.

It’s unclear if these activists will take up the cause in a meaningful way, and with 24 hours until the speaker election, they won’t have much time to act. But it didn’t take much more than a day to end Eric Cantor’s political career, and Boehner is vulnerable in many of the same, unexpected ways.

Unlike Cantor, Boehner will probably survive this attack. As before, unless a viable alternative agrees to run, the plot suffers from an "or else!" problem. But it says a great deal about the conservative movement that it is mounting a campaign to dethrone the guy who helped lead the Republican Party to a near-historic midterm victory, while circling the wagons around another member of the GOP leadership who just apologized for addressing a white-hate group when he was building his political career in Louisiana just over a decade ago.

This article has been updated.