WASHINGTON — One of Pennsylvania’s most conservative and controversial Republicans is getting a promotion. And it could shape how the GOP confronts President Joe Biden’s agenda in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Scott Perry — who led the House charge to throw out Pennsylvania’s votes in the 2020 presidential race — has been elected as the new chairman of the Freedom Caucus, the hard-right group that for years has often steered GOP politics in the House by defying compromise and clashing with party leaders.
Starting in January, Perry, from the Harrisburg area, will follow in the footsteps of previous Freedom Caucus leaders such as Mark Meadows, who went on to become President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the most pugilistic and recognizable Republicans in Congress. The job could give him a national platform as the leader of Congress’ most combative and conservative faction.
He’s already a frequent lightning rod.
Just this year, Perry has used incomplete and discredited information to try to throw out Pennsylvania’s 2020 presidential vote — including in a speech on the House floor just hours after the Jan. 6 riot, as lawmakers resumed their attempts to overturn the election. He was one of 21 House members (compared to 406 in support) who voted against awarding Congressional Gold Medals to Capitol Police who fought the rioters, arguing that it would include a “politically motivated” narrative.
He was one of 62 House members who opposed a bill to fight anti-Asian hate crimes and one of just 16 who voted against a bill to speed up visas for Afghans who had aided American officials or troops. He later said he did so out of concern that poorly vetted Afghans could lead to “little girls raped and killed in the streets.”
And in April, Perry appeared to echo white supremacist “replacement theory” that argues white people are being usurped. In a hearing on the surge of migrants to the U.S. Southern border he said: “We’re replacing national-born American — native-born Americans, to permanently transform the landscape of this very nation.”
That’s a partial list.
Yet for all the controversy and outrage from his critics, there appears to be little Democrats can do to stop Perry and unseat him from a district that encompasses Dauphin County, including Harrisburg and Hershey, and parts of York and Cumberland Counties. They made him a top target in 2018 and 2020 elections, and fell short both times.
Now, Republicans have the political wind at their backs and Perry could play a major role in steering policy debates, especially if the GOP wins back the House next year, as it is favored to do.
His allies say Perry’s unyielding beliefs engender fierce loyalty from supporters, because he doesn’t waver.
“He’s not phony, he’s not a fake, he’s pretty much: What you see is what you get,” said Jeff Piccola, the Republican chairman in York County, Perry’s home. “Scott has not backed off on the positions that he has taken and people have picked that up with him.”
With constituents, Piccola said, the congressman is humble and down to earth.
Even Perry’s harshest critics say he can be folksy and charming in person — but they argue his support is driven by far-right ideology, misogyny and racism.
It “appalls me” to see him gain stature in Congress, said Susan Roller, who helps organize Fire Perry Fridays, a liberal group that opposes the congressman. “It gives him some kind of credibility with the people that listen to the right wing and it gives him a way to appeal to the worst elements in our 10th District.”
Perry, 59, grew up never knowing his biological father and, he has said, in such poverty his family lacked running water or electricity. As a child, he bathed in a steel tub on the porch, according to a profile in The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication.
He began working at 13, picking fruit, and ran through a series of jobs while also joining the National Guard, becoming a helicopter pilot. He deployed to Iraq in 2009 and then stayed in the Guard, becoming a brigadier general before retiring in 2019.
“Scott Perry is a person of integrity and service,” said Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., who has known Perry for more than a decade and served with him in the state legislature. “That’s the voice that he makes sure is heard in government.”
Piccola said Perry’s rise from poverty to Congress represents the American dream. He recounted how Perry, at the opening of a new Salvation Army facility, told of his mother always putting money in the group’s kettles, despite the family’s dire circumstances, because the organization had helped them. “It brought tears to the eyes of the people that were there,” Piccola said.
Perry’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests. In a Freedom Caucus statement announcing his election Perry said the group has “tirelessly fought to hold the line to promote liberty, safety and prosperity for Americans,” and that he was “grateful to continue to carry the torch for these champions of freedom.”
The outgoing chairman, Rep. Andy Biggs, an Arizona Republican, had reached the group’s self-imposed term limit.
The bloc of around 40 could have a significant say in which Republican would become House speaker, if the GOP wins the majority, and they could also shape, or derail, any potential deals between a Biden White House and Republican-led House, from big proposals down to the basics of funding the government and keeping the lights on.
The caucus, formed in 2015, previously blocked the current GOP leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, from becoming speaker, and could oppose him again, or force him to make concessions to their members if he’s in line for the speakership in 2023.
The group has forcefully resisted bipartisan deals, or even GOP legislation they deem insufficiently conservative. Despite being a minority even within the House GOP, the caucus exercises outsize influence by sticking together and refusing to budge, forcing party leaders and other Republicans to adapt to their demands.
“They would hold their breath and then wait for the leadership to turn blue,” said former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania who often clashed with the group.
He argued that the caucus, once devoted to conservative policy principles, is now in thrall to Trump, even when he breaks with conservative orthodoxy.
There’s no formal list of members, but Republican aides say Perry is the only Pennsylvanian in the group.
Piccola described the caucus as a “brake” on Republicans who are “unnecessarily compromising with the left-wing people that are running Joe Biden.”
Perry’s actions, and penchant for conspiracies, have drawn attention before.
Last year he said there was “more to the story” of the death of George Floyd, the Black man murdered by Minneapolis police. In 2018 he told Fox News he had “credible evidence” that the Las Vegas shooter who killed 59 people was connected to the Islamic State and “terrorist infiltration” across at the U.S. border. No evidence emerged to support that.
And last month a report from Democratic senators homed in on Perry as a critical figure in attempting to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results even before the House vote.
He had connected Trump with Jeffrey Clark, an attorney in the Department of Justice sympathetic to Trump’s false election claims, in an attempt to get the DOJ to publicly question the results. Trump considered appointing the Philadelphia-raised Clark as the country’s top law enforcement official, to replace those who had resisted his attempts to undermine the election.
Perry called the department’s second-ranking official, according to the Senate report, praising Clark as “the kind of guy who could really get in there and do something about this.”
The York Dispatch, one of the main news outlets in Perry’s district, has called him “a disgrace to Pennsylvania and our democracy,” and urged him to resign.
Days later Perry issued a statement that read in its entirety: “No.”
His defiant attitude match what many Republican voters want, said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University, near Perry’s district.
“My students who are suburban kids and are Republicans, they tend to really like him because he’s that kind-of, sort-of rabble-rouser,” Dagnes said.
Democrats have targeted Perry in each of the last two elections, hoping to paint him as wildly out of step with his district. It leans right, but not extraordinarily so — Trump won it by 3 percentage points in 2020.
Yet Perry won last year by nearly 7 percentage points, despite facing a well-established Democratic challenger, former state Auditor Eugene DePasquale.
DePasquale has hinted at trying a rematch and Democrats hope Perry’s actions will cost him. For now, though, his votes have helped him bring Perry’s views to a bigger stage.