The Five Rules of Leadership Elections

The Five Rules of Leadership Elections

This week, House Republicans will hold their leadership elections and Democrats will elect their leadership the week after Thanksgiving.

Running for leadership positions in the Congress is much different than running for Congress itself.  It requires a whole different skill set, more personal, more pragmatic, more transactional.

It has been called a popularity contest, but you don’t necessarily have to be popular to win leadership elections.  Here are my 5 rules for winning leadership elections.

  • Possession is 9/10thsof the law.  It is easier to keep the job you have than to challenge somebody for a job you don’t have.  Both Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy will lead their parties because they already are leading their parties.   It is rare that a leader is beaten by a challenger.  In fact, it hasn’t happened in my lifetime.  Usually, a leader knows when they have lost their followers and they quit.  Bob Michel announced he was leaving in 1992 before having to run a nasty campaign against Newt Gingrich.  Jim Wright announced his resignation before being pushed out by his colleagues for ethics transgressions.   Newt Gingrich read the tea-leaves after a disappointing election in 1998 and announced he was hanging up spurs.
  • The early bird gets the worm: Getting a head start on a leadership race is essential and he (or she) who hesitates is lost.  Steve Scalise didn’t hesitate when Eric Cantor lost his primary in 2014.   He jumped right in, starting securing votes and upset Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam in the process.  Typically, in politics, folks like to be asked for their vote and the candidate who asks first typically gets it.
  • The Benjamins:It is now obvious that candidates for leadership give campaign contributions to their colleagues.  That wasn’t always the case.  Tom DeLay, the Hammer, was the one who first popularized the tactic when he ran for Whip in the aftermath of the 1994 election.  During that historic campaign, DeLay used his vast war chest to help candidates from around the country.  He was the most successful of the three candidates running for the office, which included Bob Walker and Bill McCollum.  Despite it being a three-man race and despite the fact that Walker was seen as a close ally of Newt Gingrich, DeLay won on the first ballot. One note of caution, though.  John Boehner gave ample campaign donations to members of the Freedom Caucus in the run-up to the 2010 election, but that wasn’t enough to secure their votes.  So money can only buy you so much love.
  • Where you from counts: Members like some geographic and ideological diversity.   In 1989, after Dick Cheney was appointed to become Secretary of Defense, Ed Madigan, an Illinois Republican, ran against Newt Gingrich, who hailed from Georgia, for the Whip job.  Michel, the long-time Republican leader, was also from Illinois and both Madigan and the Leader had similar moderate temperaments.  Gingrich was seen as a partisan bomb-thrower and ill-suited for leadership from the old-timers, but by the newer members, he was not only a breath of fresh air, but also provided some geographic balance.  Newt won, and Madigan went out to become Secretary of Agriculture.
  • Fit the times:In 1992, Jerry Lewis ran against Dick Armey for chairman of the Republican Conference, a critical role in the Leadership.  Lewis was the incumbent who campaigned as an old-school politician who could provide good service to the Republican Members of Congress.  Armey was a quirky economist and bomb-thrower, in the image of Newt, who promised to lead the moribund Republican minority into the majority by offering not an echo of the Democratic majority but a fundamentally conservative and libertarian choice to the voters.  Armey understood the desire for change in the Conference, while Lewis never really thought that his colleagues would go for somebody as out of the mainstream as Armey.  Lewis lost, because he didn’t understand how much his Members were desperate for change.

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