Late-Stage Factors Determine Leadership Elections

Charles Cooper

Why to take a wait and see approach.

Speaker Ryan’s announcement that he will not run for re-election in 2018 has spurred a great deal of speculation about the outcome of next year’s Republican leadership elections. My colleague, Nadeam Elshami, provided a very insightful overview of the process forward as it relates to the race to replace Speaker Ryan at the leadership table next year.

There are several key factors to consider when analyzing Republican leadership elections based on the Speaker’s announcement, but most of them are factors that simply cannot be analyzed in the near-term.

First and foremost, the leadership election is nine months away. While that is far away by any campaign standard, it’s effectively an eternity when it comes to leadership elections, which are generally based on a condensed timeframe of weeks (sometimes days).

Secondly, the largest factor in who will be at the leadership table next year – without question – is the 2018 election. The outcome of the election (good or bad) will guide policymakers in their decision in who should lead their conference. Of course, individuals will have loyalties to one candidate over another, but the broad direction of the Republican conference will be most heavily impacted by how they analyze the results of the election and what reaction they have to those results.

Third, there could be “unknowns” today that will play a significant role in leadership elections next year. Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) were all elevated to their leadership positions based on factors that evolved just prior to the leadership election and would never have been on the radar this early. None were actively known candidates at this stage in the race and all were ultimately a reflection of the direction the Republican conference wanted to go.

Lastly, today’s Republican conference will not select next year’s leadership team. That responsibility will fall on next year’s Republican conference, which won’t include any of the retiring policymakers or those who lose their re-election. Just based on retirements, alone, at least 40 members serving today will not vote in next year’s leadership election.

All of this is to say that building a strategy around a theoretical leadership team today is quite a risk given all the late-stage factors that contribute to leadership elections. There are great Republican leaders that will be well-positioned to serve in the next Congress and may even be doing some light outreach now to gauge the mood of their colleagues, which is smart. But votes aren’t secure until those voting have a better sense of the landscape for the 116th Congress.

It will be important to watch the outcome of the election, the “family discussions” that will inevitably take place after the election, and the positioning of factions that can best build a vision for next year.

I was honored to lead a successful leadership campaign when I worked on Capitol Hill. It wasn’t the materials or messaging that mattered. Nor was it the conversations that took place months before. It was the phone calls to members in the hours and days after the election that provided the clearest insight into the direction of the conference, the priorities of the new members, and the potential for the campaign to be successful. I believe that this upcoming leadership election will be no different.

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