It all started, as things tend to these days, on Twitter. Ron Meyer Jr., a 23-year-old conservative activist, started using a catchy hashtag — #FireBoehner — as he railed against Speaker John Boehner. The hashtag quickly became a pet project. All day, Meyer (@RonMeyerJr) would tweet links and snarky comments about the Ohio Republican, whom he calls “a member of the Beltway class.”
Meyer, however, has fewer than 2,000 followers, so the hashtag didn’t get much attention until his girlfriend, fellow activist Celia Bigelow (@CeliaBigelow), who has more than 9,000 followers, joined the #FireBoehner cause. Pretty soon, their boss noticed. Bigelow and Meyer both work for Americans Majority Action, a 501(c)(4) group, which is run by Ned Ryun, a longtime conservative organizer. He was impressed at how the hashtag had taken off.
Ryun encouraged Meyer to start making media appearances about their efforts. Meyer, a recent graduate of Principia College in Illinois, was eager to make the rounds, as was Bigelow, a recent graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan. “That was a fun time,” Meyer recalls, in a phone interview. “It was all about questioning Boehner’s leadership. We didn’t think it’d suddenly get out of control.”
But it did. Talk radio and a few cable TV shows picked up on the hashtag and invited Meyer to share his take. The questions, though, weren’t so much about whether Boehner was effective. Was he in political trouble? Meyer argued that Boehner should be, but he wasn’t so sure that’s how Capitol Hill insiders saw it. At the time, Meyer had few contacts.
“I then called the House parliamentarian’s office and started talking a lot about how only 17 Republicans needed to break with Boehner to get a second ballot on January 3,” he says. “People were really interested; we thought it could maybe happen.” Ryun, who often writes for RedState, shared the idea with its editor, Erick Erickson. Twitter was soon buzzing with #FireBoehner activity.
That’s when things got complicated. A House member who noticed Meyer on television talking about his distaste for Boehner searched for Meyer’s contact information on Google. Meyer won’t divulge the member’s name, but I’ve confirmed with other sources that it was Jeff Landry, an outgoing member from Louisiana. Landry invited Meyer, whom he’d never met, to come discuss a plot against Boehner.
Landry blamed Boehner for ending his congressional career. Louisiana’s electoral map was redrawn so that Landry and Charles Boustany, a fellow House Republican, were forced to run against each other in a new district, and Landry suspected that Boehner quietly boosted Boustany, who is known to be an ally of the speaker’s.
As Landry stewed over his loss to Boehner’s friend, he argued, in talks with his colleagues, that Boehner was an enemy of tea-party activists and the conservative movement. A rebellion, Landry insisted, was necessary.
Meyer agreed, and he found himself swept into the tight-knit world of House conservatives. He kept in close touch with Landry, Landry’s close friend Representative Steve Southerland (R., Fla.), and other members of the Republican Study Committee. Members of Congress texted him and e-mailed him.
By late December, Landry and others began to push harder. Plan B, Boehner’s fiscal-cliff plan, had just failed. Conservatives were starting to think that their pipe dream was possible, especially when Eric Cantor, the majority leader, and Kevin McCarthy, the majority whip, broke with Boehner on the fiscal cliff. Maybe Cantor, the thinking went, could be nominated on a second ballot if Boehner failed to get a majority on the floor.
House insiders say Raul Labrador of Idaho, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Justin Amash of Michigan, and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas were also part of the plot. Huelskamp and Amash, along with two other members, had been kicked off their preferred committees by GOP leaders after the election. Like Landry, they were bitter about Boehner’s power play and wanted to respond with more than ire.
As they worked behind the scenes, and Meyer spoke in front of klieg lights, the chatter grew. Meyer says that House members told him privately that 20-plus Republicans were on the fence.
But that whisper of a growing number of rebels never materialized. Many conservatives were wary of saying anything against Boehner lest they lose their committee spots or fundraising support. Looking back, Meyer says, he “should have realized” that “these guys weren’t going to pull the trigger.”
Yet he was already in too deep to pull back. “I got a call from Matt Boyle,” a Brietbart News reporter, “who was hearing a lot of what I was hearing,” Meyer says. On the night before the speaker vote, they both heard that Boehner might even resign because of the negative publicity. “Our sources were 99.9 percent sure that he would resign within hours, or that more than 20 people were ready to vote against him.”
“I went public with that, but I wish I did not,” Meyer says. “It was a mistake on my part. We lost the expectations game right there. We had predicted something when everybody was watching us, and we predicted the wrong thing. Boehner obviously didn’t resign, but that was what I had heard. Boehner beat us. He used that conference meeting before the vote to stand up and talk about how he’s a conservative.”
By Thursday morning, the support for #FireBoehner among House members was withering. Only a dozen or so members were prepared to move against the speaker. For weeks, Meyer had been hearing from members and their senior staffers that a coup was coming. He had put his reputation on the line — and he was played. “You can’t always trust members of Congress or sources,” he says.
When the clerk called the roll, only nine Republicans voted against Boehner, and three Republicans abstained. There was a moment on the floor when things got a bit chaotic, and the number of abstentions and anti-Boehner votes drifted to 17, but a second ballot was never reached. Meyer felt betrayed. Many of the rebellion’s leaders ended up voting for Boehner, even Steve Southerland.
“Look, I’m a 23-year-old activist who’s just starting,” Meyer says. “Did I learn a lot of lessons? Yeah, I did. I learned a lot about politics and the media, and about trusting people.” But it wasn’t all bad: He and Bigelow are still together, and he’s gained hundreds of Twitter followers in the process. “I’ll be fine,” he says. “Maybe I’ll run for office. My outrage about these guys flaking out has actually inspired me.”
In the meantime, he’ll keep tweeting. On Friday, #FireBoehner, as ever, was on his timeline.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.