Politics & Policy

Out of the Coup, and Out of Sorts

Former congressman Jeff Landry reflects on a failed revolt.

Jeff Landry, a key leader of the anti-Boehner rebellion, wasn’t even on the House floor when it all fell apart. In fact, Landry was nearly as far away from the Beltway as a man could be. At least that’s how he felt as he cruised down Interstate 10 in his Chevrolet Suburban on January 3, heading east from rural Texas toward Louisiana.

Landry’s wife, Sharon, sat beside him up front. Their young son, J. T., and a couple of Landry’s sleepy nephews were in the back. They had just visited his family in Houston. As he drove across the state border, past marshy bayous and small towns, Landry looked admiringly at the scene. “I was back in God’s country,” he tells me.

It was good to be anywhere but Washington, D.C. After only one term, Landry’s congressional career was over. In early December, he lost a brutal runoff election against Charles Boustany, a fellow House Republican. A redrawing of the state’s districts had forced Landry to run for a new seat in an area that tilted toward Boustany.

Landry felt burned, especially because Boustany, a cardiovascular surgeon, is one of Speaker John Boehner’s allies. Landry, a fiery tea-party conservative with a heavy Cajun accent, believes that Boehner and influential Republican operatives quietly worked against his candidacy. They were probably glad he was gone.

“While I don’t mind John Boehner personally, I do have issues with his leadership,” he says.

But Landry tried to forget all that as he spent a few hours on the country roads. He had had enough of complaining about how Boustany had thumped him, about how it was unfair. He told himself that he’d bounce back. He was only 42 years old, and other opportunities were surely on the horizon.

For the moment, Congress was nothing more than a memory, and he couldn’t wait to go duck hunting.

Then Sharon picked up his iPhone, which was buzzing incessantly. There were texts and e-mails from Landry’s former colleagues. They were on the floor, urgently trying to update him about the vote for speaker. The rebellion against Boehner that Landry had mused about for weeks? It was actually happening.

Landry was startled. When he left the capital, he wasn’t sure if the support for such an effort was there, even among disgruntled backbenchers. At one point, he recalls, more than 20 Republicans seemed open to the idea, but that number was never solid, especially as members mulled potential consequences.

As Landry drove toward New Iberia, La., his hometown, Sharon kept updating him about the vote. Eventually, after a flurry of texts, the outcome was clear. Nine Republicans voted against Boehner, and three Republicans abstained or voted present. To the rebels’ dismay, Boehner didn’t have to undergo a second ballot.

“It was like a perfect storm, almost spontaneous,” Landry says.

Landry started to think about what could have been, if he and his tea-party associates had been better organized. “If I knew what was going to unfold, I would have hung around for a few more days,” he says. “To me, that’s what’s amazing. If we had done a little more, John Boehner would be packing his bags.”

Boehner’s saving grace was the incoherence of the plot against him. Landry says he spent weeks talking up a revolt and giving reporters tidbits about a brewing coup. But nothing was finalized. There were a handful of casual dinner meetings of the “Cajun caucus,” a group of conservative members, but little else.

On the day of the vote, other Boehner critics did huddle. Raul Labrador of Idaho, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas encouraged conservatives to join the fledgling revolt. But their implementation was shaky. 

Moving forward, Landry says, the anti-Boehner forces are going to have to do more, in and out of the spotlight, to avoid another such mess. “You’ve got to go on TV,” he says. “You’ve got to involve more people.”

“Now, sometimes, people will call you, trying to be double agents, so be careful,” Landry chuckles.

For his part, Landry did much to stir interest among conservatives beyond the Republican cloakroom. He kept in frequent contact with Breitbart News reporter Matthew Boyle, who heavily covered the coup rumblings. He also worked closely with Ron Meyer Jr., an activist at American Majority Action, a conservative nonprofit. The process was organic, and Landry never had a game plan. For example, after he saw Meyer talking about Boehner on TV, he looked up his phone number. “I didn’t know Ron at all,” Landry explains. “But I admired his guts for saying what he was saying.”

Landry applauds Meyer for leading the “Fire Boehner” charge on Twitter and TV. And Boyle’s stories, he adds, made several nervous members more open to the idea of rebellion. But Landry acknowledges that having parts of the Cajun caucus on board, plus a few other members, was never going to be enough for a successful coup.

“I got in touch with Ron Meyer because I wanted the anger toward Boehner to go public,” Landry says. “I wanted conservatives out there to know that their feelings about Boehner were shared by some of us. Ron moved that message, and we found out that the angst toward the speaker was even greater than we had thought.”

“But it wasn’t really calculated,” Landry says. “In my mind, this thing was conceptual. The easy job, if things had been organized, would have been removing him. The tougher job would have been replacing him.”

A week later, Landry is amused that the Boehner coup plot has become such a hot story on Capitol Hill. Without the support of a House GOP leader, such as majority leader Eric Cantor, it was always going to be a long shot, he says. But he is pleased that a dozen of his friends decided to give Boehner heartburn, if only for a few minutes.

“Reporters are out there, picking up bits and pieces, trying to believe that there was some Julius Caesar, Ides of March conspiracy, but I don’t think there was,” Landry says. “It was more fluid. People were just upset, and they were looking to vent that frustration.”

Landry will cheer on the rebels as they continue to assert themselves. “I wish I was there with them,” he says. The question, though, is whether they will they reach out to him and other conservatives on the outside. Will they use the experience to build a movement, or will the episode fade into House history?

“I’m around to talk,” Landry says. “They can call anytime.”

Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.


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