Leadership Shake-Up

If all of the undecided U.S. House races finally end up the way the count was headed Wednesday, Democrats will have made a net gain of 22 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s a bit above the sixteen I predicted as a Democratic net gain, but it’s certainly not a “gloom and doom” forecast of the kind I had been treated to in the two weeks leading up to the voting.

After leading Republicans into two successive losing elections, the fate of their top leaders — Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo) — is dubious at best.

This election wasn’t as bad as lot of experts thought. But it was certainly enough to start the infighting and maneuvering among the House Republican Leadership. It now appears that at least one and probably two high-level Members of the House GOP hierarchy are going, and others are going to be pushed out in the voting for the positions when House GOPers meet in December to choose their leaders.

“We got sick on November 4 — very, very sick,” said Mike Collins, formerly spokesman for both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Republican National Committee in the 1990s, “and today, as a party, the Republican Party is throwing up.”

So why care if John Boehner stays or goes as House Republican Leader, the top position in the leadership that squares off against Democratic House Speaker, or whether Number Two GOPer (actually, House GOP Whip) Roy Blunt retires from Congress, as has been rumored?

The reason is simple: with a President Obama coming in, these relatively unknown politicians are going to set the Republican House agenda and do the responses for the loyal opposition, very much as is the case with opposition parties in Europe. What they do, how they take on Obama and Pelosi, what issues they choose to fight on — all will be critical ingredients in the shape and direction the Republican Party takes as it goes “out in the wilderness.”

While Boehner, Blunt, and friends are relatively obscure to the public, they are nonetheless taking on new importance as Republicans relinquish the White House, and their ranks in Congress have shrunk.

Affable, chain-smoking Boehner may be the friendliest and easily the best-liked of Republican House Members. Deposed by his colleagues as GOP Conference Chairman after the party’s disastrous showing in the 1998 mid-term elections, the easy-going Ohio lawmaker bided his time. When Texan Tom DeLay left as majority leader in ’06, Boehner roared back and was elected leader. After the ’06 elections in which the GOP lost its majority in the House after twelve years, Boehner nonetheless stayed on as leader. Everyone liked John, the reasoning went, so he should be given a chance to lead.

Now the party has lost another 22 seats. Everyone still likes John and, in a letter to colleagues, Boehner said he wants to run again as leader. His friends say he considers rumors of a challenge “unserious,” that Arizona Rep. John Shadegg (who ran for leader in the ’06 race in which Boehner first won) had an unexpectedly tough re-election campaign and won’t challenge him. There is talk of Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) throwing down the gauntlet, but Boehner feels confident that won’t happen, his allies say.

All three are considered strong conservatives, trusted more by the right-of-center party activists far more than George W. Bush and John McCain. But Shadegg and Pence are regarded as movement conservatives, more likely to throw down the gauntlet and fight than Boehner.

Missouri’s Blunt is almost certain to step down as whip, the top nose-counter among House Republicans. Guessing is strong that the six-termer will retire in 2010 and take a high-paying lobbying job. Should he exit from leadership in December, his chief deputy whip Eric Cantor of Virginia looms large as a successor. The lone Jewish Republican in the House, Cantor is considered bright, a comer, and was reportedly considered for vice president by McCain — and certainly urged on the Arizonan by several colleagues.

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida announced Tuesday he was out as House GOP Conference Chairman, the Number Four leadership job.

The early favorite among conservatives to succeed him is Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who did much to keep alive the issue of smaller government and reduce spending during his stint as House Republican Study Committee chairman. Hensarling, a former top aide to former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, is also a highly regarded fund-raiser who turned in a first-rate performance as co-chairman of the annual “President’s Dinner" for the party.

In what is sure to be the bloodiest of the internecine contests, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.) announced he would run again as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. With the losses the party experienced and the tremendous fund-raising advantage the Democratic campaign unit enjoyed over the NRCC, it seems that the Oklahoman will have a difficult time hanging on. Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), runner-up in the three-man race won by Cole two years ago, is telling friends he will try again.

So what does it all mean? Republicans did not go down for the count, but they had a bad night November 4th. Not all, but some, have to pay. And some have to go.