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Yes, a bipartisan speaker is unlikely. But here's why it's not impossible.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) reaches out to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) looks on during a ceremony on Capitol Hill July 8, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) reaches out to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) looks on during a ceremony on Capitol Hill July 8, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Yesterday I tossed out an admittedly outlandish suggestion for how the House speakership crisis ends: A rump group of 40 or so center-right "Tuesday Group" Republicans, fed up with their party being held hostage by the Freedom Caucus, make a deal with Democrats to elect a moderate Republican speaker (say, a Charlie Dent).

I was immediately confronted with all the reasons this would never happen. Among them:

  1. Any Republican who joins with Democrats to elect a speaker would be primaried by the ideological right. Why risk it?
  2. Republican moderates are not really moderate. They are closer to the far right of their party than to even the most moderate Democrat. They'd never vote with Democrats.
  3. Democrats would never take the deal.
  4. It's just unthinkable.

These are all fair objections. And it's true it is not a very likely scenario.

But in the spirit of keeping the bipartisan speaker possibility alive, let me push back a little on these critiques and argue that while the probability of a bipartisan speaker is low, it is not zero.

"The moderate Republicans would all get Cantorized"

What would happen if 30 or 40 Republicans voted to elect a moderate Republican speaker along with Democrats? The knee-jerk response has been this: They'd all get Cantorized. That is, they'd be defeated by a far-right challenger in their upcoming primary, just like Eric Cantor did in 2014.

How likely is this? I asked Robert Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University who's written on the 2014 primaries and whose book Getting Primaried is the most comprehensive recent analysis of the topic.

Not very likely, he told me over email:

Cantor's defeat was a fluke. In general, it's only possible to mount serious challenges against 2-3 incumbents per cycle, and it certainly helps if those incumbents are blindsided. So there would be strength in numbers; the more moderates that took this step, the more diluted any organized effort to oppose them would be (or, the less likely that they would be the focal point of conservatives' ire), and the more time there would be to prepare for the challenge.

(Professor Boatright discussed the overhyping of the Tea Party primary threat in more detail in a Vox interview from last year.)

Cantor lost because he didn't take a challenge seriously. Any Republican moderates who voted with Dems to elect a speaker would take a challenge seriously. If they won as moderates before, they know how to win as moderates again. Granted, this might be seen as a serious apostasy by the base, and might mobilize a bigger challenge. But it assumes there are genuine challenger candidates waiting in the wings in these districts.

Below, I draw on data from professor Boatright and Greg Giroux to look at Republican primary elections in recent years. Yes, there has been a slight increase in close elections. In 2014, 13 Republican incumbents were reelected with less than 60 percent of the primary vote — up from nine in 2012,and six in 2010. But they still won. Few primary challenges are successful — at most three per year.

Graphic by Lee Drutman, data from Robert Boatright and Greg Giroux.

A second reason to be at least a little skeptical of 30 to 40 Republicans getting "Cantorized" in their primary is the same reason that political scientists have historically been skeptical of blaming primaries for polarization. There is little measurable difference between the ideology of primary voters and general election voters. To quote Lynn Vavreck:

Research suggests that primary voters are not more ideologically extreme than those who vote for the same party in general elections, despite the conventional wisdom to the contrary. While primary voters are more interested in politics than general election voters are, this heightened level of interest does not translate into systematically different political views within each party.

Yes, a few ideological-right primary challenges happen, and more may. But the availability heuristic of the Cantor loss way overstates the reality. Only three House Republicans lost in their primaries in 2014.

"Moderate Republicans are just not moderate enough"

We all know the parties are very divided. My colleague Dylan Matthews cites DW-NOMINATE data (which arranges member ideology based on votes) to show that the two parties are as far apart as they've ever been in the post–Civil War period. He quotes the esteemed congressional scholar Sarah Binder, who points out that "no matter how fractured the conference is, the differences within the party pale compared to the preferences between the two parties."

This is all true. I tend to think that DW-NOMINATE scores overstate differences between the two parties because the scores are based on votes, and the House leadership keeps many issues that would have broad bipartisan support off the floor. As Keith L. Dougherty, Michael S. Lynch, and Anthony J. Madonna note in a recent critique of NOMINATE scores, "Partisan agenda control might mask some evidence of higher dimensions." And as Frances Lee has argued, votes are often more about partisanship than ideology. So it's possible the true preference gaps are not quite as stark as DW-NOMINATE and other vote-based measures make them look.

After all, some portion of the Republican caucus has crossed the aisle repeatedly to vote with Democrats to keep the government from shutting down and not defaulting on the debt. And they would likely vote with Democrats on key issues like immigration reform and even raising the minimum wage, should such issues come to a floor vote.

Yes, the parties are far apart and deeply divided. But maybe I'm more optimistic than most in thinking that center-right Republicans have to be pretty fed up at this point with the House Freedom Caucus and other far-right saboteurs. How much do they really want to continue to serve in a House where their party is being pushed to a ridiculous extreme? And even if voting for a bipartisan speaker increases their risk of a primary loss, is losing in a primary the worst punishment in the word? After all, if they lose, they can then go on and earn seven figures as a lobbyist or a consultant or investment banker — not the worst thing in the world.

"Democrats would never make the deal"

There is also the criticism that Democrats would never take such a deal. But remember back in March, Speaker Boehner was going to face a coup. Democrats said they'd support Boehner. Because, after all, what was the alternative? "I'd probably vote for Boehner [because] who the hell is going to replace him? [Ted] Yoho?" Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) told the Hill then. (Yoho is a Tea Party Republican.) The same problem exists now.

Most Democrats understand that given the electoral map, they are not going to win the House at least until 2021 (assuming they get to re-draw some electoral maps then). If they could make a deal to elect a moderate Republican to run the House, they'd be in a better position to at least advance a few policies. Now they get bupkis.

Moreover, as Brendan Nyhan has astutely pointed out, disarray among Republicans does not actually help Democrats, as much as they may enjoy the schadenfreude of it all. Instead, it probably contributes to the general sense that government is broken and incompetent, which tends to help Republicans.

"A bipartisan speaker is just unthinkable"

Well, I just thought it. And so have others. And it has happened in the states. Speakers have been elected with bipartisan support Tennessee, New York, and California. Yes, it seems unlikely — but it shouldn't be unthinkable. Politics is the art of the possible, and this is possible. Unlikely. But possible.