On the Democratic side, the uncertainty is most stark.  Should the Democrats rally and suffer fewer seat losses than are currently expected, their majority will still be fairly small.  This creates a clear problem for current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has become a lightening rod for the Tea Party Movement and the Republican electoral groundswell more generally.  A number of Democratic House members this Fall have consciously run against Pelosi and a number of moderate-to-conservative Democrats – Bobby Bright (Ala.), Jim Marshall (Ga.), Gene Taylor (Miss.), Jason Altmire (Pa.), and Mike McIntyre (N.C.) – have already declared publicly that they will not support her for another term as Speaker.  Others have hinted at following suit.  And while there are some indications that Pelosi will not seek another term, Democratic House leaders like Majority Leader Steny Hyoer (Md.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Chris Van Hollen (Md.) have insisted that Pelosi will stay on as Speaker in a Democratically-controlled 112th House.

If Pelosi is challenged, this will mark the first episode of intraparty contestation over matters of House organization among Democrats since the tumultuous battles of the late-1960s and early-1970s. During this period, liberal elements within the party fought against “Old Guard” elements fairly routinely.  For example, in 1969, Speaker John W. McCormack (Maine) beat back a strong challenge in caucus from liberal insurgent Morris Udall (Ariz.), and in both 1971 and 1973, Carl Albert (Okla.), McCormack’s successor as Speaker, faced down an intracaucus challenge mounted by John Conyers, Jr (Mich.).  Since 1973, however, no would-be Democratic Speaker has faced an intracaucus challenge.  Indeed, the last time a sitting Speaker of either party faced a challenge of any sort was in 1997 when nine members of the GOP cast floor votes against Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Such party defections on the floor vote for Speaker had not occurred for almost three-quarters of a century, and they served as a harbinger of the growing intraparty opposition that would eventually prevent Gingrich from running for Speaker again in 1999.

On the Republican side, the leadership picture is a bit clearer.  John BoehnerJohn Andrew Boehner20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Dem says marijuana banking bill will get House vote this spring Trump appears alongside Ocasio-Cortez on Time 100 list MORE (Ohio) has consolidated his position as incoming “Speaker-to-be” despite misgivings voiced by some social conservatives and rumors of a potential battle with Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorGOP faces tough battle to become 'party of health care' 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington House Republicans find silver lining in minority MORE (Va.).  In recent weeks, BoehnerJohn Andrew Boehner20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Dem says marijuana banking bill will get House vote this spring Trump appears alongside Ocasio-Cortez on Time 100 list MORE has outlined a plan for procedural reform, and he has won the endorsement of Tea Party icon and one-time House Majority Leader Dick Armey (Texas).  Should he take over as Speaker, however, Boehner will preside over an incoming Republican class that has made clear its aversion to any compromise with Senate Democrats or the White House.  Indeed, Boehner’s public opposition to a strategy that calls for inducing a repeal of health care legislation by shutting down the government has already put him at odds with Tea Party favorite Steve King (IA).  As Speaker, Boehner will need to balance the priorities of ideologically-motivated Tea Party Republicans with the governing responsibilities that accompany majority status.  Failure to strike this balance presents Boehner with two routes to a prematurely short run as Speaker: seat losses in 2012 that cost the GOP majority control of the House or an intraparty challenge not unlike the one potentially facing Nancy Pelosi.

Jeffery A. Jenkins is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Faculty Associate in the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Justin Peck is a Ph.D student in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.