Why so little dissent? Explaining the stability in this week’s House GOP leadership contests

The House Republican Conference met Wednesday to choose their top leaders for the 116th Congress.  Despite the fact that the midterm elections cost them between 30 and 40 seats and, importantly, majority control, the results of the Conference voting were largely anti-climactic.  Only two top leadership posts were contested: one for chair of the Republican Policy Committee, and the other for minority leader, in which front-runner Kevin McCarthy easily bested Freedom Caucus favorite Jim Jordan 159 to 43.

This relative consensus and stability in leadership selection is somewhat surprising for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, the House GOP has historically been more prone to intra-party conflict in leadership selection than Democrats.  Since 1961, more than twice as many contested leadership races or revolts against sitting leaders happened within the House Republican Party as occurred among House Democrats during that time.

Furthermore, seat losses are a common precursor to challenges against incumbent leaders, especially if they result in the loss of majority status.  When the 1994 elections ended Democrats’ four-decades-long control of the House, the top two leaders of the party, Dick Gephardt and David Bonior, were challenged by other Democrats, and there were contested races for Caucus Chair and Vice-Chair as well.  A similar dynamic occurred when the GOP lost its majority in 2006, with contested races for no fewer than six different leadership positions.

If a significant loss of seats often provokes numerous leadership contests and challenges to incumbent leaders, why did the GOP’s 2018 electoral losses produce so few contests?  The research we conducted for our forthcoming book, plus our assessment of the current politics of the Republican Conference, suggest three key explanations for why there was a relative lack of leadership turmoil within the House GOP.

First, Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement may have assuaged Republicans seeking a change in leadership in response to the party’s election losses.  Though McCarthy was a member of leadership and the heir apparent to the post of party leader, he could—and did—make a strong case that his prior experience in the minority made him well-suited to the post of minority leader.  Meanwhile, other party leaders opted not to run for their posts, including GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Steve Stivers, the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee (which is principally responsible for the party’s electoral success).

Second, lower-level party leaders opted not to challenge other leaders higher up the leadership ladder.  Most important was the decision by GOP whip Steve Scalise not to challenge McCarthy.  Had he done so, there would have also been a contest for his vacated post, with the potential for a “domino effect” as lower-level leaders each tried to run for higher-level positions. Ryan’s retirement was helpful in this respect as well:  like a game of musical chairs, the loss of the majority means that one seat – the Speaker’s chair – is taken out of the mix, and the question becomes: who loses a leadership post?  Ryan’s planned departure (much like Speaker Tom Foley’s 1994 election loss and Dennis Hastert’s decision to step down in 2006 in the examples cited above) took a player out of the musical chair game, sparing the GOP the potential scramble for one less leadership office.

A third reason that might explain the lack of intra-party turmoil is that House Republicans had been bracing for these electoral losses for some time.  We find that, while seat losses may precede challenges against incumbent leaders, more important are losses that are larger than anticipated.  In the case of these past midterm elections, the GOP may have been bracing for an even bigger “blue wave” than what actually hit.   (Though more Republicans have been losing seats in recent days, they arguably came too late for strong challengers to mount effective campaigns for leadership posts.)  And, even those unhappy with the results may well privately attribute them to negative views of the White House rather than their own party leadership.


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Topics: Representation & Leadership