Three scenarios for how leadership races could play out in the House

Three scenarios for how leadership races could play out in the House
© The Hill staff

No matter what happens to the House in November, there will be a knife fight in both parties for leadership positions.

Eleven weeks before the crucial midterm elections, all sides agree that Democrats are poised to make solid gains in the next Congress. Whether the shift takes the form of a blue wave or a smaller ripple, however, remains highly speculative.

The uncertainty is already prompting jockeying by ambitious lawmakers in both parties, even though they’re not sure whether they’ll be battling for the Speakership.

Here are three scenarios for how it could all play out in both parties.

A blue wave

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Democrats say they have game changer on impeachment Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg would support delaying Libra | More attorneys general join Facebook probe | Defense chief recuses from 'war cloud' contract | Senate GOP blocks two election security bills | FTC brings case against 'stalking' app developer MORE (D-Calif.) is under fire from a growing number of Democrats — incumbents and new candidates alike — who are pressing hard for changes at the top of the caucus, where Pelosi has reigned since 2003.

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But the arrival of a blue wave, like the one Pelosi helped to orchestrate in 2006 — when Democrats last seized control of the House and Pelosi become the country’s first female Speaker — would eliminate one of the central arguments against her: namely, that the Democrats simply can’t win the majority while she’s in charge.

Many lawmakers think such a cushion would insulate Pelosi and her top lieutenants — Reps. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThis week: Tensions flare over Schiff, impeachment inquiry House Republicans 'demand the release of the rules' on impeachment Scalise, Cole introduce resolution to change rules on impeachment MORE (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — thereby keeping all three in place heading into the high-stakes 2020 cycle.

“I honestly do believe that we’ll be a significant majority and then she’s the Speaker and everybody is reelected,” said one veteran Democratic lawmaker. “Because they’ll say, ‘Hey, we won,’ and all these criticisms … go out the window because they did well.”

But others disagree. They argue that a large freshman class featuring a host of Democrats distancing themselves from Pelosi on the campaign trail — largely to deflect GOP attacks linking them to a leader who’s toxic in parts of the country — would spell doom for Pelosi in the current anti-establishment environment. For these voices, it’s about bringing fresh ideas to the party.

“The bigger the class, the more likely there is for a wholesale pivot to a new set of leaders,” said a second veteran Democrat.

Pelosi has resolved to stay, while insisting the attention to leadership questions is premature. She’s scouring the country raising money and stumping for Democrats. The tour is designed to help flip the chamber, but will also help her boost allegiances with lawmakers who will be voting in the post-midterm leadership elections.

Democrats win, but barely

A small margin for the majority Democrats would likely prove a tougher test for Pelosi and her grip on the party.

Aside from the candidates telling voters they’ll oppose her Speakership bid, a growing number of restive incumbents — many of them newer members with fewer allegiances to the top brass — are itching to break into the leadership ranks. Many of them would like to see a complete overhaul at the top.

With that in mind, it’s uncertain Pelosi could secure the 218 votes needed to take the gavel, even if she wins a closed-ballot contest for the speaker nomination, which requires a simple majority of a caucus where she still enjoys broad support.

“If it’s a very narrow win, then that becomes a very different situation,” said the first veteran lawmaker. “It becomes much more difficult for her.”

If Pelosi goes, some Democrats would like to see both Hoyer and Clyburn go with her. But there’s no standout figure within the lower ranks of the caucus seen as a shoo-in successor. Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the caucus chairman, was widely viewed as Pelosi’s heir apparent until he lost his primary in June. And even some of the loudest proponents of generational change acknowledge an appetite for Hoyer or Clyburn to step in as a “bridge” to a younger crop of leaders.

“Most people are in agreement that we do want a generational shift, [but I’m] not sure if we can get there right now,” Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart The Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy MORE (D-Ohio) said before the recess. “There’s a lot of people talking about potentially a bridge leader.”

Hoyer is positioning himself to be that bridge. Outside of Pelosi, he’s raised the most money for the party, and he’s a tireless campaigner for Democratic candidates. But Clyburn, a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus, is also eyeing the job if Pelosi leaves, setting the stage for a potential rematch of the Hoyer-Clyburn contest for whip in 2010, when Hoyer prevailed.

Complicating the picture, several other Democrats are floating the idea of running for the top spot. Ryan, who challenged Pelosi in 2016, said he’s not ruling anything out. And Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesDiplomat who raised Ukraine concerns to testify in Trump impeachment probe Sunday shows — Mulvaney seeks to tamp down firestorm over quid pro quo comments, Doral decision Hurd: No Ukrainian officials have told State Department 'they felt like their arms were being twisted' MORE (D-Conn.) is also expressing interest.

Whatever happens, it seems clear that the smaller the Democratic margin, the fiercer the fight.

“Winning is far more difficult than losing,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “[It] would create far more internal posturing than a loss would foment.”

Republicans lose seats, but keep majority

One thing is certain this November: House Republicans are poised to lose seats on Election Day. Democrats, Republicans concede, are more energized and the leader of the Republican Party, President Trump, is mired in controversies.

But GOP leaders and strategists believe the booming economy and historic Trump tax cuts — coupled with fears about Pelosi returning to the Speakership — will be enough to limit Democratic pickups to under 23 seats, preserving the GOP majority.

“I think we lose a dozen seats but keep the majority and do better than expected or projected by the pundits,” one Midwestern GOP lawmaker told The Hill.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Memo: Trump 'lynching' firestorm is sign of things to come McConnell: Trump lynching comment 'an unfortunate choice of words' White House spokesman: Trump didn't mean to compare his experience with 'darkest moments' in US history MORE (R-Calif.), who’s been endorsed by retiring Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash: Trump incorrect in claiming Congress didn't subpoena Obama officials Democrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Three-way clash set to dominate Democratic debate MORE (R-Wis.) and other members of the leadership team, is still the favorite to become the next Speaker if Republicans retain the House. He’s got the relationships on the Hill and has been stumping across the country this summer, raising millions of dollars for his colleagues.

But McCarthy’s chances to slide into the top job grow slimmer the narrower that the GOP’s majority gets.

For example, if the GOP wins a small, five- to eight-seat advantage over Democrats, just a handful of disgruntled Republicans from the far-right House Freedom Caucus could block McCarthy in a public vote on the House floor — even if he wins a coveted endorsement from Trump.

That could create an opening for McCarthy’s leadership colleague and potential rival, Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseMcCarthy on Trump's 'lynching' comparison: 'That's not the language I would use' House rejects GOP measure censuring Schiff This week: Tensions flare over Schiff, impeachment inquiry MORE (R-La.), to step in and seize the Speaker’s gavel. However, some GOP sources on the Hill have speculated that Scalise could face a backlash from McCarthy allies who view Scalise as subtly trying to undermine McCarthy’s bid.

The thinking goes: If McCarthy can’t be Speaker, then neither will Scalise.

At that point, it would be a wide-open race with as many as a dozen Republicans vying for the job.

Some of the dark-horse candidates floated for Speaker include Scalise’s top deputy, Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenryPatrick Timothy McHenryHouse passes bill taking aim at anonymous shell companies Waters clashes with Trump officials over 'disastrous' housing plans House committee pressing Zuckerberg to testify on digital currency Libra MORE and Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerGOP lawmakers offer new election security measure California inspires other states to push to pay college athletes To boost minority serving institutions, bipartisan Future Act needs immediate action MORE, both North Carolina Republicans; Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenPrivate equity-funded doctors coalition spends million lobbying on 'surprise' medical billing Top Republican rejects Democratic chairman's approach to stopping surprise medical bills Lawmakers hit Trump administration for including tech legal shield in trade negotiations MORE (R-Ore.), who had two successful cycles as GOP campaign chief; Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTrump 'lynching' comparison draws backlash from lawmakers Trump urges GOP to fight for him Trump embarks on Twitter spree amid impeachment inquiry, Syria outrage MORE (R-Ohio), a founder of the Freedom Caucus; and House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersSocial determinants of health — health care isn't just bugs and bacteria Lawmakers deride FTC settlement as weak on Facebook Overnight Energy: Fight over fuel standards intensifies | Democrats grill Trump officials over rule rollback | California official blasts EPA chief over broken talks | Former EPA official says Wheeler lied to Congress MORE (R-Wash.), the top ranking GOP woman on the Hill.

Jordan probably can’t cobble together the 218 votes needed to become Speaker. But in a chaotic leadership shake-up, the Freedom Caucus’s founding chairman might be able to pull off a victory in a race for majority leader or whip, the No. 2 and No. 3 positions, which only require support from a simple majority of the GOP conference.

“Whether Republicans hold the majority or whether Democrats gain control of the House, the leadership races will all come down to who will change Congress and actually make it work better than it's working,” one southern Republican lawmaker told The Hill. “That does not bode well for anybody in current leadership positions on the Democrat or Republican side.”

“I think you have to see new blood on both sides in order for there not to be a populist revolt on the left or the right,” the Republican said.

For the Democrats, meanwhile, there’s a growing sentiment that a failure to win back the House would mean all three leaders at the top would have to step aside.

“If we’re still in the minority,” Clyburn said earlier in the year, “all of us have got to go.”

That would lead to a fierce scramble among the younger leaders — and a long list of others — to fill the void.