The House Republican leadership race


House Republicans are going to have an election soon to replace Tom DeLay as majority leader. The candidates are Roy Blunt, the majority whip who has been acting majority leader since DeLay was indicted in Texas, and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner.

I learned long ago not to try to handicap leadership races. In politics, the rule is often "those who know don't say." But in leadership races, or so it has seemed to me, there aren't any "those who know." Both Blunt and Boehner are putting out lists of members who have agreed to support them, and both sides say they have commitments from other members who don't want to be named publicly yet. But these are secret ballot elections, and the number of commitments the contending sides receive in such elections tends to exceed the number of members of the conference (the Republican word; Democrats say caucus).

Some members lie. Others give commitments that aren't really commitments. Tony Coelho, back when he was the Democrats' majority whip, once told me, in words I paraphrase, that if a member told him, "I've always been for you; I think you're the greatest; you can always count on me," then he put him down as a sure vote for the other guy. Phil Burton, who lost the race for majority leader by one vote after the 1976 election, spent years trying to figure out just who it was who had committed to him but had voted for Jim Wright. As I recall, Burton was pretty sure he knew who before he died in 1983.

A lot of the news stories have focused on Blunt's and Boehner's relationship with K Street. Of course they have had dealings with lobbyists; how could they be members of the leadership (as Boehner was until 1998 and Blunt is now) or major committee chairmen (as Boehner is now) and not? Neither seems to have had much of a relationship, if any, with the disgraced Jack Abramoff. Boehner has, from the beginning of his House career (he was first elected in 1990), opposed earmarking projects and has never obtained any for his district.

Blunt has disclosed more names of members supporting him than has Boehner, but both have significant numbers. There is talk of John Shadegg, who doesn't hold a leadership position currently, entering the race; Mike Pence, head of the Republican Study Committee, has said he is not running. A good place to follow the action is National Review Online's The Corner, but I'm not sure that the Cornerites know much more than I do, and I don't know much. I could go over to Capitol Hill and schmooze with members and staffers, but judging from past leadership contests, I don't think I'd learn a whole lot more.

House Republicans, obviously, could be hurt by the Abramoff scandal and Democrats' charge that they have created a "climate of corruption." They can say, truthfully, that Abramoff clients gave a lot of money and trips to Democrats too, but they're the majority party, and so they're the ones likely to be hurt most by the issue.

But let's remember also that the early 1990s scandals—the House bank, etc.—did hurt members of both parties in the 1992 election, which as I recall was one of the very few elections in American history in which the average percentages of the vote won by incumbents of both parties declined. (Usually, when Republican incumbents' average percentage declines, Democratic incumbents' average percentage rises, and vice versa, for fairly obvious reasons.) It was only in 1994 that a combination of issues, including some scandal-type issues, resulted in a smashing defeat for the Democrats after they had held majorities in the House for 40 consecutive years.