The noise generated by President Donald J. Trump’s contesting the outcome of the November election is drowning out the news that the results yielded more good than bad for the GOP. Once again, the much-ballyhooed “Big Blue Wave” broke up before it crashed on the shores. The Republicans gained net one governor, flipped at least two net state legislative chambers, maintained their good field position crucial to the upcoming post-reapportionment redistricting and, counting only contested seats, came out ahead in the national vote for Congress.
This leaves the party in better-than-expected shape heading out of the Trump era. Most of the focus now is on the two Georgia run-off elections, which will determine which party will control the U.S. Senate. Consequently, there’s been little discussion of what current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and his allies should do when it comes time to organize the House.
Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are heading into the next Congress with one of the slimmest majorities in history. A switch of just a handful of votes by so-called “moderate” Democrats, who claim they’re chafed every time Pelosi cracks the whip to drive her conference leftward, would block anything she wants to do—including her re-election to the speakership.
Among those moderates, 10 returning to the House in 2021 voted against her for speaker in 2019. That’s more than McCarthy needs to become speaker if he wins over those moderates and also maintains the unanimous support of his own conference, leaving Pelosi in a precarious position.
National politics being what they are, there’s almost no scenario in which a Democrat wishing to be re-elected votes for McCarthy over Pelosi even if such a vote would play well with most of the voters back home. Any Democrat who did that would have to change parties or risk re-nomination next time. But what if one of these alleged moderates, like Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin of New York’s Kathleen Rice, announced a last-minute challenge to Pelosi’s leadership?
They’ve said publicly they’re at least uncomfortable with Pelosi’s progressivism, and feel the actions of “The Squad” and others are a drag on the party’s future. So why not launch a revolution that would, on a bipartisan basis, drag the House back toward the center, matching what’s been billed as the upcoming centrist Biden presidency? McCarthy could probably deliver the GOP votes necessary to pull something like that off without needing too much in return. Maybe he’d settle for an agreement to increase the number of bills brought to the floor under an open rule, or an end to the proxy voting created to address pandemic-related concerns but no longer needed as vaccines are rolled out.
This has been done before—and recently, in both Texas and Ohio. Both states saw moderate Republicans chosen to lead their state’s Houses of Representatives, with the backing of Democrats wishing to block the installation of more conservative Republicans as speakers.
The arrangement in Texas was successful and lasted several sessions. Things in Ohio ran aground after the speaker was indicted on corruption charges—but the plan to put him in the chair still worked. To pull something like this off in the U.S. House, McCarthy and his inner circle will need to start thinking and acting like Democrats, at least politically, and turn up the heat on the moderates.
This isn’t just a fool’s errand. With the GOP sitting somewhere around 212 seats—pending the true finalization of one result in each of New York and Iowa—the pathway back to the majority is indeed achievable. Preliminary estimates of the upcoming reapportionment’s effect on who will control the House suggest that McCarthy and his compatriots should pick up at least six seats, with lines drawn fairly and without having to depend on the kind of extreme gerrymandering the Democrats used in places like California, Ohio and North Carolina to keep control of the House throughout the 1980s.
With control of the floor in doubt and with the country just having voted to eschew extremism in favor of a problem-solving approach to the nation’s woes, McCarthy can help himself by advancing the interests of the moderates in the other party over the progressives. To do that, he needs to be conciliatory while, at the same time, making every vote to move left a tough one. He must call on the Pelosi-skeptical faction of Spanberger, Slotkin, Rice, Tennessee’s Jim Cooper and Maine’s Jared Golden (whose congressional district Trump carried in 2016 and 2020) to be sensible and join with his caucus to vote down extreme Pelosi-backed proposals to raise taxes, drive up energy and food prices, make America less safe, and open the borders.
It’s doable. Most conservatives believe the fight against the socialist agenda will come in the Senate—which is why the GOP must win the Georgia run-offs, so Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell can remain majority leader. If he doesn’t, new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (who will be spending much of the next two years worrying that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) might soon primary him from the left) will let every extreme proposal under the sun, from court-packing to publicly funded abortion, sail right through.
The Senate-focused conservatives may be right. McConnell can be counted on to stop anything extreme from coming to the floor. And a Schumer-led Senate would probably be a nightmare for conservatives. With the right attitude and organization, however, coupled with the ability to apply pressure in the right ways and in the right places, McCarthy could have a similar effect in the House as McConnell can have in the Senate. Forcing a handful of self-described Democratic moderates to declare where they stand—with progressive Pelosi or with the people back home—is the beginning of the fight to keep America from lurching sharply to the left over the next decade.