Win or Lose in ’06, House Leaders on Firm Ground

Posted September 8, 2005 at 2:20pm

Even though the political stakes are extremely high in the 2006 elections, House Democrats and Republicans alike expect the balloting will bring little change to their respective leadership lineups, no matter how the parties fare.

On the Democratic side, strategists don’t see any major leadership challenges on the horizon. The same is true among Republicans, who appear unlikely to unseat any of their leaders regardless of how well they do next November.

“I don’t see anybody vulnerable to a takeover,” said a GOP leadership aide.

Democrats have a lot riding on the next election, and most handicappers currently favor them to pick up seats in the midterm election of President Bush’s second term. With Republicans’ poll numbers continuing to lag, and historical trends on their side, Democrats are feeling empowered heading into next year.

“We have an excellent opportunity to take back the House,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “What’s happening is what happened in ’94. The public is fed up with the failures of the Republican Party and this administration and the Congress to produce solid policies for the country.”

Hoyer added that in this, the 2006 election, Republicans have the most on the line and the majority knows it will have “more of an uphill slog this time around.”

“The tragic news is we don’t have anything to lose,” Hoyer said of the Democrats. “It’s all ours to gain out there.”

Still, the Democratic expectations for major gains in 2006 remain fairly low. Few believe the party has enough opportunities across the country to regain control of the House. The minority needs to recapture 15 Republican seats to win back the chamber.

With that in mind, strategists, key aides and lawmakers said Pelosi and the rest of the leadership team (assuming they survive their own re-election bids) are almost assured of remaining in place — at least through 2008. Those same sources said that barring some sort of catastrophic setback, no Member would even seriously entertain a leadership challenge heading into the 110th Congress.

“Nancy Pelosi has one thing going for her — the expectations are low about winning the whole thing,” opined one top Democratic strategist. “Nobody believes we’ll win the House. What she has to do is pick up seats and if you look at the election from today’s vantage point it would seem that is not a hard thing to do.”

A senior Democratic House staffer added that as long as the leaders are pulling out all the stops to win seats, the Caucus will be forgiving of the outcome.

“Every time we don’t win back the House, the Democratic Caucus looks to see if [the leaders] are doing everything they can,” said the Democratic staffer. “Right or wrong, that’s the bar. Pelosi is constantly raising money, Hoyer is constantly traveling the country and [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm] Emanuel is constantly recruiting.

“Everyone knows that day in and day out they are working hard.”

Brendan Daly, spokesman to Pelosi, said Pelosi’s abilities are known throughout the Caucus, and she feels confident heading into the next cycle.

“Her strengths are the unity displayed within the Caucus, and she’s focused,” Daly said. “She meets regularly with Members, she talks to them all the time, she is very responsive to their needs. Her leadership and her position are very solid within the Caucus.”

On the Republican side of the aisle, most party aides and strategists said it was unlikely that next year’s elections would prompt the shakeup of a leadership slate that has remained relatively stable for the last several cycles.

Since Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) took the House’s top job in 1999, the only major change has been the retirement of Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) in 2002, a move which prompted Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to move into their current positions.

In the recent past, most major changes on the GOP leadership have been sparked by dramatic election results. The party’s historic victory in 1994 swept a new slate of leaders into power, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Gingrich’s resignation, along with the fall from leadership of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), was prompted by the GOP’s surprising loss of five seats in 1998.

Though the 2006 election remains more than a year away, most Republican strategists and aides expressed doubt that a similarly disappointing result next year would prompt 1998-style upheaval.

“This group of leaders has proven over and over again that whatever the political dynamic inside the Beltway, they get results,” said Terry Holt, who served as an aide to then-Majority Leader Armey and now works for the public affairs firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

Now in his seventh year as Speaker, Hastert retains broad and deep support within the GOP Conference that, barring a huge electoral disaster, means his job is secure.

“Hastert is safe no matter what happens,” said a former GOP leadership staffer.

Hastert has announced his plan to run for re-election in 2006 and has indicated to his colleagues that he will remain in office at least through the end of Bush’s current term. Unless he has a change of heart, that is likely keep any of the leaders below him, or outside aspirants, from gunning for the top job.

Pelosi is now in her second term as the Minority Leader after succeeding then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who stepped down to pursue the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Pelosi took over during difficult times for House Democrats, having watched a six-seat loss in the 2002 election under Gephardt’s leadership.

House Democrats were again banking on victories in 2004, but ultimately lost three seats and left them with a 203-seat minority that includes Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Most blamed the setbacks not on Pelosi and other leaders, but rather on a difficult presidential election and a GOP-drawn Texas redistricting map that helped unseat four incumbent Democrats.

But even if Pelosi’s best efforts fail in 2006 and Democrats don’t pick up seats, no names of potential challengers to her position are emerging. Sources said no other Member has the political wherewithal to knock off the Minority Leader, or any of the other leaders for that matter.

“Even if she lost seats, who are they going to replace her with?” asked the Democratic strategist. “Unless there was a real candidate, she has a dominant position in the Caucus.”

Democratic aides have said privately the only Democrat with enough muscle to mount a credible challenge to Pelosi would be Hoyer, but are quick to add that such a suggestion is unrealistic. These sources said the Whip, who enjoys a strong following in the moderate wing of the Caucus, would never take on the party leader, even if she is a one-time rival.

“Steny would never do it,” guessed one top Democratic aide.

A former aide to a moderate Democrat said that if “we get our lunch handed to us” and lose seats next fall, there may be pressure for Pelosi to step down, but this one-time staffer doesn’t expect the California Democrat will do so. The most likely scenario, this source said, is that Democrats will pick up some seats — just enough to “spin it as we gained seats and we’re on track to winning back the House.”

While Hastert and Pelosi appear on solid footing, DeLay’s situation is more complicated. Though the Texas Republican remains favored to retain his House seat, he faces what could be his toughest re-election fight following several months of bad press and the announcement of a challenge from ex-Rep. Nick Lampson (D).

Assuming DeLay triumphs over Lampson, his future in leadership appears secure. And if he were challenged or chose to resign, most Republican observers believe it would be related to the ethics allegations against him rather than anything that might happen in the 2006 elections.

Democrats have already begun using DeLay as a springboard to make a broader argument that the entire GOP majority is corrupt. If they are able to gain any traction with that argument and depose any Republican incumbents as a result, DeLay could get the blame, though most GOP strategists believe that scenario is far-fetched.

Blunt and his second-in-command, Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), appear even more insulated from Election Day results, as they will be judged by their colleagues for their performance on the House floor rather than their campaign acumen.

If none of those top jobs turns over, then Boehner and other potential leadership aspirants will have to wait a little longer to make their moves.

The one GOP leader who has an obvious stake in next year’s results is National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).

Having gained seats in 2004 (albeit with the help of DeLay and the Texas redistricting process), Reynolds could further enhance his résumé by posting more gains in 2006. Two consecutive strong cycles would position him well for a rise in leadership that he is widely expected to pursue.

Conversely, a disappointing 2006 could dampen Reynolds’ prospects, though how a loss of seats would be perceived by his fellow Republicans depends on a variety of factors.

“Depending on how many seats are lost or the national mood, [bad results] may not be held against him,” said a Republican campaign strategist.

In 2000 for example, then-NRCC Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) received widespread praise for his performance despite the fact that the party lost one seat that November. Yet Davis won plaudits anyway because the campaign landscape and a strong cycle of Democratic fundraising had prompted many Republicans to expect much larger losses.

Similarly, if Republicans perform poorly in 2006 because of high gas prices, trouble in Iraq or any number of other external factors — rather than mismanagement by the NRCC — then Reynolds may not get the blame.

But while Reynolds might not be faulted in that scenario, the rest of the leadership could be held accountable for a loss by GOP lawmakers regardless of whether the leaders could have done anything differently.

“Certainly that was the case in ’98, where I would argue … that events outside of Newt’s control” caused the loss of seats, said Jack Howard, a former Gingrich aide who now works for Wexler & Walker Public Associates. “Some Members held him responsible for the results.”

On the Democratic side, Pelosi is seen as the party’s point person on the election outcome. However, Hoyer, Emanuel, current Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Vice Chairman Jim Clyburn (S.C.) would also be viewed as bearing some responsibility for Democratic success or failure.

Clyburn is running unopposed for Caucus chairman in 2006, and most believe that regardless of the election outcome he will cruise to victory. Menendez is eyeing the possible opening of a New Jersey Senate seat. If elected governor, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) may appoint Menendez as his successor.

Both Emanuel and Hoyer, for their parts, are no more vulnerable than Pelosi. Emanuel — winning raving reviews for his handling of the party political machine — is expected to be asked to stay on as the head of the DCCC no matter how many seats are won.

Still, Clyburn said he believes he and other leaders could be vulnerable to a challenge if the 2006 election produces poor results, saying, “it’s happened before.” Clyburn was quick to add, however, that while it is easy to blame leaders for party failures, much of the election is beyond their control in an era of 30-second sound bites and an ever-changing political landscape.

“It could happen, sure,” he said. “It’s like, no matter how bad the team is, the easiest person to blame is the coach, the easiest person to replace is the coach. It’s harder to replace the whole team.”

But others suggested that scenario remains unlikely.

“The odds of the Democrats purging their leadership are very, very slim,” said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “But you will have a whole lot of bitching and moaning.”

“I can’t foresee a set of circumstances, where they would change their leadership and part of the reason is there isn’t an alluring prospect,” added Ornstein, a contributing writer at Roll Call. “Who would be better?”

Menendez said the Caucus recognizes that “we are all in this together.”

“There are things you can’t control and you are judged by that which you can control,” he said. “If you are raising resources, recruiting the best candidates and getting them to run and raise money, striking at the right issues whatever they happen to be — that’s what you can do.

“Right now, I think that all that can be done is being done or in the process of being done.”