Election day falls on Nov. 3.
But another set of crucial elections falls in late November or early December on Capitol Hill. These are internal leadership elections staged by both parties in the House and Senate. Rank-and-file members vote in the House and Senate Democratic caucuses on their party leaders. The same unfolds in the House and Senate Republican conferences.
These elections often establish the course of legislation and set the face of the party. The consequences sometimes reverberate for years, if not decades.
We’ve written before that decisions made in congressional leadership elections are “particle politics.” You’ve heard of “partisan politics.” But the choices made as to who matriculates to serve as House and Senate leaders are made at the subatomic political level. Sometimes political fate intervenes at the macro-level and sidelines a potential rising star. That’s why former Reps. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., and Eric Cantor, R-Va., never became speaker of the House. Crowley lost his primary to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Former Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., sidelined Cantor in his primary.
But more often than not, whispered conversations conducted in abandoned Capitol corridors, and deals made in a corner of the House cloakroom are what settle congressional leadership races. Those interactions determine the behavior of the political neutrons and protons in the congressional leadership supercollider. This is how Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., became House majority leader in late 2006 – staving off a contest from the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. It also explains how former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, slid into a leadership position in February 2006, defeating now-Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to become House majority leader.
Minute, nearly indiscernible decisions made by individual members trigger big consequences for the congressional leadership suites.
There was a lot of drama surrounding leadership races in the fall of 2018. Democrats won back the House for the first time since early 2011. They’d be in the majority come January 2019. But there was speculation as to whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. – then House minority leader – had the support of her caucus to stand as the Democratic candidate for speaker when the new Congress started on Jan. 3. The full House elects the speaker. That’s why Republicans ran House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., against Pelosi. But it took a few weeks for Pelosi to solidify her support. Several freshman Democrats said they wouldn’t support her for speaker.
Pelosi scored 220 votes that day. Only 203 Democrats voted for her in the Democratic Caucus election on Nov. 28, 2018. Fifteen Democrats either voted for someone else or voted “present.”
It’s doubtful there will be much as excitement on the House Democratic side as last time. Yes, some of the younger, liberal, ambitious members may make some noise. But Democrats are widely expected to retain the House if not add to their majority. Pelosi has installed a number of more junior members in various leadership positions and granted some freshman prime committee assignments. So intrigue isn’t likely this fall among House Democrats.
That’s where House Republicans come in.
Astute political observers see very few scenarios where Republicans seize control of the House this fall. If they did, there would be virtually no debate about the primary GOP leadership team in 2021. After all, the current GOP brass would have defied the odds, flipping control of the House.
McCarthy would likely become speaker. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., would move up to majority leader. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who currently holds the No. 3 leadership position as Republican conference chairwoman, could become whip.
Many Republicans are concerned about perceptions of the party having just “white men” in positions of authority – let alone composing most of the House GOP conference. (There are currently 13 Republican women in the House, but two are retiring: Reps. Martha Roby, R-Ala., and Susan Brooks, R-Ind.) The party is mindful of having women at the leadership table – to say nothing of Cheney’s own political gravitas.
And Republicans like how Cheney is willing to tangle with Pelosi. They appreciate the matchup of a congresswoman from the Mountain West squaring up with a San Francisco liberal.
But Cheney’s faced adversity of late. Some House conservatives and members of the Freedom Caucus lashed out at her earlier in the summer. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., argued that Cheney “worked behind the scenes” against President Trump. And Donald Trump Jr. issued this haymaker on Twitter: “We already have one Mitt Romney. We don’t need another.”
Cheney’s political capital took a hit after those brutal, internal GOP attacks. Some believe the broadsides were a deliberate effort to sabotage her. Some rank-and-file House Republicans have thought that Cheney could defeat McCarthy or Scalise in a leadership race. But even Republicans who foresaw such a circumstance aren’t so sure now after the Freedom Caucus undermined Cheney.
Still, no one knows.
That said, it’s doubtful Republicans will win the House. And if the GOP falls short and Trump loses, the House Republican Conference could be doing some soul searching. Especially if Republicans lose big across the board.
McCarthy and Scalise certainly ingratiated themselves with the president. Perhaps too much so, say some Republicans privately. That’s why the reputations of McCarthy and Scalise could take a hit with a smaller minority in the House – and no President Trump in the White House.
Don’t forget there’s a reason why McCarthy unexpectedly bowed out of the speaker’s race in the fall of 2015 when Boehner abruptly retired. It was unclear if McCarthy had the votes on the floor.
Even though he was already the No. 2 Republican, Scalise’s stock rose after he rallied to health following the June 14, 2017, congressional baseball practice shooting. Scalise nearly died on the diamond that morning in Alexandria, Va., but inspired his colleagues as he fought through months of hospitalization and multiple surgeries to return to Congress.
There was a point when some thought Scalise could actually defeat McCarthy in a leadership race. But again, particle politics. Republicans could look to change leaders if Trump loses and Republicans fail to reclaim the House.
Would that boost Cheney? Possibly. But some doubt that anyone could topple McCarthy to start with. He’s raised so much money and done too many favors for members. Scalise and Cheney are also in that camp. So maybe the leadership team remains intact.
Although, return for a moment to particle politics. Keep an eye on Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. McHenry’s now the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee. McHenry served as chief deputy whip – and was the de facto Republican whip – when Scalise was out after the shooting. He earned a lot of chits doing that work.
Another factor: the Freedom Caucus. Its members may feel chastened after a possible defeat by Trump. By the same token, the Freedom Caucus could be emboldened to take up the mantle in a potential post-Trump world.
And, there’s another wild card: It’s probable the House GOP Conference will have at least a couple freshman lawmakers who have backed controversial positions and QAnon conspiracy theories. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert won their respective primaries in Georgia and Colorado. How congressional Republican leaders address these candidacies could seep into the leadership contests. This factor is augmented if those perspectives emerge as more central to the party or are discredited – especially after a GOP loss.
The “second election” inside the House Republican Conference sometime in November or December will sort all of this out. And it all hinges on “particle politics.”