How to Pick a Speaker of the House
(All of the strategy that you never knew mattered)
With the debate raging about whether or not Nancy Pelosi should be re-elected as Speaker of the House after Democrats wrestled control of the House away from the Republicans with a sound wholloping, it seems wise to walk through some strategic considerations behind selecting the Speaker of the House. It’s commonly thought of as a “popularity contest” but as with all things in politics, it’s not that simple. The calculus is not finite, but here are some of the important variables in a high stakes calculation - without the right strategy here, we could very well hand our hard-won Speakership back to the GOP. Yes, that can happen.
A Speaker of the House becomes the lightning rod for criticism from the opposite side of the aisle. For that reason alone, a considerable factor in the selection of a Speaker has less to do with the candidate and more to do with congressional districts. The moment a member of Congress becomes Public Enemy Number One to the minority party, he or she will face harsh public criticisms and behind-closed-doors complaints from members of their own party, a threat to their continued role as Speaker for multiple terms and also to their seat in Congress.
Using Nancy Pelosi as an example, Republicans have often vilified her as a “San Francisco Liberal” but that is to her advantage as Speaker. A Speaker should not be worried about the security of their own election and indeed, one from a moderate district may hurt the entire party by pandering to the middle in efforts to keep their own seat.
The Cook Partisan Voting Index offers us a handy tool to evaluate the security of a district. The median for all democratic districts is D+14 based on 2016 PVI score. The Bronx’s PVI Score of D+44 is considered the most securely democratic district with José Serrano receiving a whopping 96% of the vote. It bears noting that the 2018 Democratic contingent has a handful of districts with a risky PVI score of 0, and even quite a few Dems holding seats in districts that are considered Republican territory. The most extreme example of which is Minnesota’s 7th district, rated as a red-hot R+12 on the Cook PVI scale, but is repped by Democratic Congressman Collin Peterson. Does this change the strategy of what Democratic “middle” you pull the speaker from? Most likely not, as the caucus is unlikely to swing noticeably to the right to try and safeguard a few outlier candidates in red districts.
Now that I’ve done a thorough job of telling you why the politician’s district matters so much, I should offer the caveat that a politician being from a high Democratic PVI district doesn’t equate to being a more progressive candidate. The correlation is more likely - one would assume that if constituents have any say in the matter, their representative’s voting record should, in theory, reflect the aggregate values of the district, whether they be bright blue or a soft shade of purple.
The Speaker of the House plays a pivotal role in helping vulnerable caucus members fundraise. It follows that he or she will need demonstrated fundraising ability to help build party coffers. While some of this work is done by a committee of elected officials called the DCCC, the Speaker of the House will certainly do substantial fundraising at the party level or they may fundraise in individual districts at the request of members of their caucus that need help.
A Speaker from an area with deep pockets may have an easier time fundraising for themselves so that they can dedicate more attention to helping others (another argument that location matters for financial reasons as well as political ones). If a Speaker raises more than they need, they are able to pass it off to the party coffers. Indeed, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan had more cash on hand than any other member of congress. His war chest is now up for grabs as a result of his retirement.
Evaluating the strongest fundraisers is pretty simple, thanks to Open Secrets. According to them, the top 10 Democratic incumbent fundraisers for the 2018 election cycle are:
Tenure and Experience
This one is the most obvious factor for most armchair political strategists (hey, I’m not knocking us, I’m one of them). A good Speaker has had several election cycles under their belt and has been in Congress long enough to have built a solid network of intra-party alliances as well as a few across-the-aisle friendlies. This is where the notion of “popularity contest” comes into play. How well-regarded that Congressperson is has a very real bearing on whether they can lead the chamber.
What is more telling about experience is whether they’ve served in House leadership roles before. I’d generally shy away from a member of Congress if they have not chaired a committee, acted as the House Minority Leader, or the House Minority Whip. Those two roles are currently occupied by Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, respectively. This is of particular note considering that they involve a lot of work keeping a demoralized party’s agenda moving forward and don’t get the glory of Speaker of the House. Both politicians have certainly paid their dues, but the optics of handing the gavel to Hoyer, an older white man, would be disastrous for a party capitalizing on the momentum of the successes of women and people of color.
They have to Want it.
Plain and simple. Speaker of the House is a position of power, but it also comes with enormous responsibility for moving the legislative agenda forward, which in this climate may be an albatross. Steny Hoyer has put in a bid for the House Majority Leader, clearing the way for Pelosi to regain her spot as Speaker. She is largely unchallenged, though there is a fraction of the caucus that has put out calls for change without offering a solid alternative candidate.
This prospect is dangerous for Dems, and makes all of us political enthusiasts mighty nervous that we are getting off on the wrong foot after retaking legislative power. What is even more horrifying is the realization that if Pelosi loses more than 15 Dem votes in the House vote on January 3rd and the entire GOP contingent votes in unison for one of their own, a Republican would become Speaker of the House. So, to the 16 members of Congress that have signed a letter of opposition to Pelosi (including our own Kurt Schrader from OR-5) - please sit down. You don’t even WANT to get me started on the optics of more than a dozen men trying to undermine the power of a capable and intelligent woman.
To fully realize how narrow the field is, if we take the top 10 Democratic fundraisers, rule out those that have served less than 2 full terms in Congress, those that have a district PVI score of less than +10, that leaves us with Adam Schiff, Brad Schneider, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and John Lewis as options. And with And with Steny Hoyer running for House majority leader and Schiff aiming for Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, two of the five don’t even want the role. Slim pickings, indeed. While that isn’t to say that there are no good outlier candidates because I believe firmly in the concept of the underdog, the purpose of this article is to outline how in a House of 435 men and women, and with a party that currently holds 232 of those seats it’s not like there are dozens of suitable options. And it certainly ain’t just a popularity contest…
**For full disclosure, I fall into the #TeamPelosi camp, for reasons that should be obvious in this article, and for other reasons that are not - namely that she’s an experienced woman and led the House to a great victory. Looking ahead, I see a few rising stars that could take over after she hands in her gavel, but for now, Nancy’s got my heart.