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John Feehery: Picking GOP leadership

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This week, House Republicans will conduct leadership elections to replace Eric Cantor as House majority leader, after he surprisingly lost his reelection bid last week. 

Congressional leadership elections are unique. They are based mostly on personal relationships, although among so many ambitious people, other strategic considerations are often considered. 

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Here are some things to look for in these contests, based on past history:

Boston to Austin: For close to 50 years in the last century, House Democrats achieved geographic balance in their caucus by selecting their Speaker among candidates from Texas (or Oklahoma) and their majority leader from Boston, or vice versa. That was how they kept their very diverse caucus together, by giving Northeast liberals and Southern Democrats equal access to the decision-making table. Having that kind of balance is important, which is why the demand for “red state” representation is so compelling in the whip election.

Workhorse vs. showhorse: In 1980, Rep. Bob Michel (R-Ill.) ran for leader against the more charismatic Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.). Vander Jagt was described by Richard Nixon as the best public speaker in America, and as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he was considered to have an advantage over the less voluble Michel. But Michel ran as a workhorse, the man who could get things done, vs. Vander Jagt’s showhorse, the man who could give a great speech. Members of Congress hear a lot of speeches (and give a lot of speeches) so they tend to vote for colleagues who have the capacity to get things done over the ones who talk a lot. Michel won. 

Change vs. status quo: In 1992, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) challenged Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) to head the Republican Conference. Michel supported Lewis because he didn’t trust the rambunctious Armey, who would later become one of the original founders of the Tea Party. But House Republicans were frustrated not only by George H.W. Bush’s loss of the White House but by the inability for them to take back the majority. Armey represented a more confrontational and aggressive approach to the GOP leadership, and his brand of change offered a clear choice from the continuity preached by the more moderate Lewis. Armey won. 

Radical Republicans vs. establishment Democrats: Republicans tend to be much more willing to try something new at the congressional level then Democrats, who tend to follow the status quo. Republicans ditched Rep. Joe Martin (R-Mass.) for Rep. Charles Halleck (R-Ind.), and Halleck for Rep. Gerry Ford (R-Mich.) in the middle of the last century; Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) forced Michel out in 1994 and was then forced out himself after the disappointing elections of 1998. Democrats, on the other hand, usually go through the regular order of conference chairman, whip, leader and, when possible, Speaker. This explains why the Democratic leadership tends to be so much older than the Republican leadership, and why there is also so much talk about ditching Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Republicans are always looking for something new. 

Dispersing power: After Dick Cheney was appointed to be secretary of Defense in 1989, House Republicans had a vote to replace him as minority whip. Leader Michel supported his pal and fellow Illinoisan Rep. Ed Madigan, who was a workhorse in his own right and a well-respected member of Congress. But Gingrich, despite his erratic reputation, won in a close election, because members didn’t want too much power concentrated in the hands of the leader. 

It’s a not-so-secret ballot; much is made about the secrecy of the election, which gives members of Congress a false sense of security. They think they can vote for whomever they want, no matter what they might say to their colleagues. And some members do change their votes inside the room. But the dirty little secret is that after the vote, the competitors usually trade notes to figure out who voted for whom. That’s why, as the vote is going on, the winning organization usually has a whip team stationed throughout the room, to make sure that people vote the way they promised to vote. 

Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).