Will moderates cut a Speaker deal with Democrats?

The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 41

This week:

  • Can Republicans overcome the problem of a rudderless House?
  • Republicans score their first governor pickup for the cycle
  • Manchin’s support is below 30 percent


House Speaker: The withdrawal of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) from the race for Speaker last week came as quite a shock to nearly everyone. This surprising development, resulting from the unwillingness of a handful of conservatives to support him on the House floor, has left the ball in the court of the small handful of conservative Republicans who helped all House Democrats to oust Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from the speakership earlier this month.

Democrats, having provided nearly all of the votes to oust McCarthy, are of course having lots of fun with this. But at this point, there appear to be three possibilities in the race for Speaker. 

The first is that everyone gets behind conservative upstart Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has put his name forward, and he is elected by his colleagues as the next Speaker of the House. This seems unlikely for now, given that as many as 50 Republican House members said they would not support him in a secret ballot taken within the House GOP Conference Friday.

The second possibility is that House Republicans find themselves simply unable to elect a Speaker, and they decide not to do so. Although some have speculated that this might result in a fully functional House led by Speaker pro tempore Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), this is terra incognita from a legal perspective. Nobody but the House itself can decide what McHenry’s powers are, and so far he has been loath to test the limits.

A third possibility, far less appealing to conservatives, is that some moderates will cut a deal and join with the Democrats to elect a Speaker. Such a deal might involve chairmanships for Democrats and more power for the minority. Although this is precisely the sort of arrangement by which the Texas state House is already being run, It would be a humiliating arrangement for Republicans seeking voters’ approval in 2024. 

This option is probably unlikely, but it could still happen if things get genuinely desperate as the government approaches its next shutdown deadline. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) ominously hinted at it in an interview over the weekend.

Going forward, perhaps the cleverest idea for handling the speakership is to stop treating it as the top partisan power position, as former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney recently suggested. The adoption of a non-partisan, British-style speakership would leave the parties free to elect their own majority and minority leaders without needing a majority of the whole House to run the body. 

All this would take is a new Speaker willing to forgo the almost dictatorial powers and perks that the position currently entails. McHenry, a father of young children who reportedly has no interest in taking on the responsibilities of the speakership, might be just the man to do it. As noted above, it is still admittedly ambiguous whether this would require a new vote in which almost every Republican backs him and accepts such a change in the situation, or whether he can be deemed to have full Speaker powers already.

Governor 2023

Louisiana: Attorney General Jeff Landry‘s (R) performance in Saturday’s jungle primary exceeded our expectations.

Although we mentioned that this was a possibility, we did not necessarily expect Landry to win the first round of the Louisiana governor’s race outright without a runoff. But that’s exactly what he did, receiving just under 52 percent of the vote. Landry was always favored to win, but the candidate field was quite crowded and a runoff seemed likely.

It is astounding that, in a state where the Democratic Party dominated from the late 19th century until it finally lost control of the state legislature in 2010, the only two Democratic candidates in the governor’s race received a combined total of less than 30 percent of the vote. Former state transportation secretary Shawn Wilson, the leading Democratic candidate, achieved a majority only in Orleans Parish (site of New Orleans), and won pluralities in only three other parishes, two of which are insignificant in terms of population. Wilson was not an inspiring candidate, and Democrats had low expectations for him, yet he did not meet even those.

In the down-ballot races, things could not have gone much worse for Democrats. Republicans retained the lieutenant governor, insurance commissioner, and agricultural commissioner positions. They are poised to keep the other statewide constitutional offices as well — attorney general, treasurer, and secretary of state — when runoffs occur next month. They have also clinched 69 out of 105 State House seats and 28 of 39 State Senate seats, if you include all majority wins plus runoffs where two Republicans will be facing each other. This means that, if they prevail in just two of the remaining contested House runoffs, they will have increased their already-veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

Republicans have thus been blessed with another chance to change the culture in Baton Rouge. However, as in Kentucky, some of these until-recently blue states have a way of electing Democratic governors when things go wrong with Republicans. The GOP will not become a truly dominant party just by default. In the case of Louisiana, scandal-scarred former Sen. David Vitter’s (R) disastrous run for the governorship in 2015 gave the Democrats the lifeline they needed. His 23 percent showing in the first round was good enough to land him in the runoff, where he proceeded to lose by double digits.

President 2024

Pennsylvania: Yet another poll shows trouble for Joe Biden in Pennsylvania. This time, he supposedly trails former President Donald Trump by nine points, but that isn’t the worst part — the worst part is that he is an incumbent polling at just 36 percent. 

The result seems very outlandish, but it is the second poll showing Trump ahead after this month’s Quinnipiac Poll. All signs point to Biden having a serious Pennsylvania problem, and toward his ancestral home state becoming a main battleground in 2024.

Senate 2024

Arizona: Former news broadcaster and gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake (R) has officially entered the Senate race. She begins as a strong favorite for the Republican nomination, even though she may not be the strongest candidate in a general election after her failure and her undying insistence that the 2022 race had been stolen from her. She faces Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb in the GOP primary. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, suggests that both Republicans wold start out trailing in a three-way race against Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego and incumbent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I), with Lake performing slightly better at 36 percent to Gallego’s 41 percent.

West Virginia: The Democrats’ second-most endangered incumbent (after Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey) is polling in the high twenties for reelection in an Emerson poll of the Mountain State. That’s not a good sign for Sen. Joe Manchin (D). An Emerson college poll shows him at just 28 percent against Jim Justice, the current governor and a former Democrat turned Republican. Generally speaking, incumbents polling in the low 40s are in mortal peril, politically speaking. But in the 20s? That’s just exceptionally bad. 

The same poll shows Manchin leading Justice’s Republican primary opponent, Rep. Alex Mooney, but with only 37 percent support. (Emerson polls generally seem to suffer from a failure to push leaners to take a side.) This strongly suggests that Manchin is dead meat either way. If Manchin chooses not to run again, or opts for a third-party presidential run, this is almost certainly why. He has promised an answer this fall, but so far he has not given any certain answers. If he retires, then there is no other Democrat in the state remotely capable of holding the seat.