This week, House Republicans held closed-door secret-ballot elections to choose leaders for the new Congress that begins in January. These elections signal the direction Republicans are likely to head in, especially as the GOP is projected to regain control of the House.
The news media closely covered the election of the GOP’s nominee for speaker. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) won that election handily, though more than 30 Republicans voted for conservative challenger Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), suggesting McCarthy may face some trouble when the full House chooses its speaker in January.
More surprising was the race for Republican whip, the leader charged with the pivotal role of rounding up and counting votes for the party’s agenda. The surprise winner in the three-way contest was Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), head of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC). He was widely believed to be at a disadvantage because he is ideologically moderate, was belittled by allies of former president Donald Trump and would presumably be blamed for the lack of a red wave in the midterm elections.
How did this happen? Leadership races are complex affairs. A candidate’s ideology, coupled with an endorsement from high-profile outsiders, is not necessarily enough to win — especially against an opponent who gave electoral resources to other lawmakers.
What went down
Both parties select their leaders by a secret ballot vote for all new and returning members of that party. If there are more than two candidates, they employ a multiple-round system. If no candidate wins a majority on the first ballot, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated and the balloting proceeds in successive rounds until one candidate wins a majority.
This week’s election for whip pitted Emmer against Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), the current chief deputy whip, and Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee. Emmer narrowly managed to avoid elimination on the first ballot, coming in second with 72 votes, one vote more than Ferguson but behind Banks, who won 88. Then in the second and final round between Emmer and Banks, Emmer won, 115-106.
Ideology isn’t all that matters
In our research on past leadership races, we found that legislators frequently consider the ideology of a candidate when deciding whom to vote for. The conservative nature of the Republican conference presumably gave Banks an edge, since his ideological leanings (as measured by NOMINATE scores, which political scientists use to approximate attitudes from recorded votes) were the furthest to the right of the three candidates.
But we also discovered that ideology alone doesn’t explain all lawmakers’ decisions. In some races, it doesn’t matter at all. When Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), later elected House speaker, ran for GOP whip in 1989, for instance, he successfully appealed to moderates and conservatives alike to get himself elected. Banks’s conservatism was thus no guarantee of victory.
Helping other candidates can make the difference, regardless of election results
Our research showed that campaign contributions to lawmakers from candidates’ leadership political action committees (LPACs) are closely associated with whether those lawmakers vote for them. (LPACs are political committees that leadership candidates use to raise and spend campaign money for their colleagues). This is largely because it signals that the candidate will do more as a leader to help them get reelected, no matter how well the party does in the election overall.
According to the latest data from Open Secrets, Emmer’s LPAC donated some $150,000 to 24 incumbents and thousands more to over a dozen first-time candidates. By contrast, Ferguson’s LPAC gave just $86,000 to 16 incumbents and Banks’s LPAC donated a mere $35,500 to six incumbents. This — plus the help that he gave other candidates through the NRCC — probably gave Emmer a leg up over his two rivals.
Getting second round commitments is key
As noted above, when more than two candidates run for a leadership post, the elections are held in rounds, with the lowest vote-getter eliminated. It is therefore crucial in such races that strong candidates woo the lawmakers who support weaker ones, to get their votes in subsequent rounds of balloting.
According to one source, Emmer’s campaign focused on getting second-round vote commitments from Ferguson’s supporters. That proved to be a smart strategy: Emmer would not have won without the majority of Ferguson’s supporters voting for him in the final round.
Outsiders don’t have much pull
Banks had worked hard to cultivate the impression that Donald Trump preferred him to be whip. And Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., called Emmer a “coward” and a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) and, along with Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, lobbied Republicans to vote for Banks.
Getting people outside of Congress to endorse a leadership candidate is not a novel strategy, but it’s no substitute for campaign contributions or member-to-member lobbying. Outsiders rarely have the same persuasive pull as lawmakers do, and their involvement in a leadership election is sometimes perceived as meddling.
So it was in this race: As some lawmakers expected, Trump’s endorsement backfired and was probably seen as undue interference in a pivotal but internal party affair.
Matthew Green (@mattngreen) is professor and chair of politics at the Catholic University of America and co-author most recently (with Jeff Crouch) of Newt Gingrich: The Rise and Fall of a Party Entrepreneur (University Press of Kansas, 2022).
Douglas Harris is professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and co-author (with Matthew Green) of Choosing the Leader: Leadership Elections in the U.S. House of Representatives (Yale University Press, 2019).
Updated Oct. 5, 2023