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Election Day is over. Now who will lead Congress?

How to handicap the upcoming congressional leadership elections.

House Democrats Address The Media After Weekly Caucus Meeting
The current House Democratic leadership team during a news conference at the Capitol on January 31, 2018: (L-R) House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY). Crowley lost the midterm election to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Now that the midterm elections are behind them, several members of Congress have thrown their hats in the ring to run for party leadership posts. Most of the attention has been given to the election for speaker of the House, which current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appears likely to win, though she faces some resistance within her own party.

Other party leadership positions are being contested too, however. Republicans will be selecting their top leader, a contest between Republicans Kevin McCarthy (CA) and Jim Jordan (OH). Democrats, meanwhile, are facing elections for five posts: majority whip, assistant leader, Democratic Caucus chair and vice chair, and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Elections to these positions, especially the lower-level ones, seldom get much attention. But they can be quite significant. Those who win acquire a wider public platform and can influence the policy direction and electoral success of their party.

The winners are also likely to move further up the leadership ladder, thereby gaining more influence and public attention. For instance, Tom DeLay was elected Republican conference secretary in 1992, later becoming one of the most effective majority whips and floor leaders in the modern Congress. Incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had previously won a contested race for caucus chair in 1989, while Assistant Leader James Clyburn got his start by winning an election for caucus vice chair in 2002.

Each of this year’s contested leadership elections features different candidates, issues, and campaign tactics. But despite these differences, our research suggests a few common rules of thumb for gaming the outcome.

Money matters

Depending on the race, many variables may enter into legislators’ calculations of whom to support for a leadership office. They include ideology, seniority, shared state delegation or committee, and if a legislator serves in leadership.

One variable, however, is consistently important: campaign contributions. When two or more candidates run for a party leadership office, donations from leadership candidates to their colleagues are a statistically significant explanation of vote choice.

Assuming that money influences these upcoming contests, certain candidates already have a crucial advantage over their rivals. For instance, Kevin McCarthy has far outspent Jim Jordan: His leadership political action committee (LPAC) gave more than $2 million to more than 200 Republican incumbents and candidates through the end of September, whereas Jordan did not even have an LPAC in this election cycle.

Katherine Clark (MA), running for caucus vice chair, donated $120,000 to more than 90 Democratic incumbents and challengers, while the LPAC of her rival, Pete Aguilar (CA), gave just $16,000 to 15 House incumbents and first-time candidates. (While this suggests that Clark has an advantage over Aguilar, the data excludes non-LPAC contributions and donations made after September, which may yield a different picture of fundraising by both candidates.)

Campaign contributions have also been a potent factor in Pelosi’s bid for the speakership. Besides the fact that Pelosi chalked up some major legislative wins during her last stint as speaker, her fundraising prowess has served as a persuasive argument among Democrats that she should be elevated to the position.

Freshmen can be an influential bloc

Many of the candidates in these contested leadership elections have been cultivating votes from their incumbent colleagues for months. But when many new legislators are elected to Congress, those newbies may help swing a leadership election one way or another.

The midterm elections will bring at least 50 new lawmakers to the House Democratic Caucus, giving them an outsize role in the outcome of leadership races. Also worth noting is that many of them are women or ethnic minorities. Because gender and ethnicity can be statistically significant predictors of vote choice in leadership elections, their votes may give a leg-up to nonwhite and women candidates for leadership posts — candidates like Ben Ray Luján (NM), who is running for assistant leader against David Cicilline (RI).

Surprises do happen

Much of the variation in vote choice cannot be explained by measurable variables. Personal relationships, behind-the-scenes deals, and other factors may help one candidate win over her rivals, which means there is always the potential for an unexpected outcome. Tom Cole (R-OK) and John Larson (D-CT) are among those who chalked up surprise wins in their races for leadership posts in recent years.

Perhaps the most famous example of how a candidate’s personality and personal relationships can cost him votes was the 1976 election for House majority leader. Phil Burton (D-CA) was considered the frontrunner over the other three Democratic candidates, but his heavy drinking, erratic personality, and aggressive ambition had alienated many of his colleagues. He maintained a solid lead in two rounds of balloting before losing on the last ballot by a single vote. The unexpected winner, Jim Wright (D-CA), would go on to become a powerful and controversial speaker of the House.

Finally, history suggests that it is wise to keep one’s eye on both the winners and the losers of these races. While the victors may continue illustrious careers in leadership, the losers do not necessarily disappear from view. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), for instance, came in last place in a contest for majority leader in November 1998. Less than two months later, after both Speaker Newt Gingrich and Gingrich’s likely successor, Bob Livingston (R-LA), had resigned from Congress, Hastert was sworn in as the next speaker of the House.

Even those who cannot fulfill their aspirations for leadership in Congress may pursue successful careers elsewhere. When John Boehner (R-POH) was reelected minority leader in November 2006, he trounced his opponent, 168 to 27. Boehner would later rise to the speakership before resigning in October 2015. Meanwhile, his opponent left Congress, got elected as governor of his home state and, in 2017, acquired a new title: Vice President Mike Pence.

Matthew Green is a professor of politics at Catholic University. Douglas Harris is a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland. They are the authors of the forthcoming book Choosing the Leader: Leadership Elections in the U.S. House of Representatives.


Update 11/13: Updated to clarify the fundraising totals mentioned for Katherine Clark and Pete Aguilar.