Fuzzy Math of Congressional Leadership Elections: Beware Predictions

In the three-way race to become the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives, Steve Scalise of Louisiana says that more than 100 Republicans are supporting him. Allies of Peter Roskam of Illinois say he has about 90 backers. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana claims “50 votes, solid.”

Taken together, that’s about 240 Republicans — bigger than the voting pool of 233 Republicans who serve in the House.

Welcome to the world of leadership elections, where claimed support often exceeds actual support.

“Contests like this are hard to predict,” as John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman wrote in Politico this week. “In the lead-up to the vote, all sides try to publicly portray that they have the most support. Lawmakers often lie during the whipping process, saying they will support multiple candidates. And because the vote is conducted by a secret ballot, there’s no way to call them out.”

A vote for House majority whip would be held June 19 if the incumbent, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the same day succeeds Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia as majority leader, the No. 2 position behind Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. McCarthy is favored to defeat Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.

The No. 3 position “requires ‘whipping’ up support for the agenda set by Boehner,” Bloomberg’s Michael C. Bender and Derek Wallbank note in a story that looks at the voting records of Scalise, Roskam and Stutzman.

Here’s a look at some past leadership races where one or more candidates claimed more support than received:

November 2006, Senate Minority Whip (Republicans): Trent Lott of Mississippi beat Lamar Alexander of Tennessee by one vote, 25-24. As recently as the night before the vote, Alexander’s office “predicted he had the support of as many as 30 Republican senators,” the Associated Press reported at the time. Lott, a former majority leader, was the better vote-counter.

November 2006, House Majority Leader (Democrats): Even before Democrats won control of the House in November, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania began running for majority leader against Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who was the second-ranking House Democrat behind Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader and incoming speaker.

“Hoyer and Murtha, as well as their supporters, both maintain that each has the approximately 150 votes necessary to ensure victory,” Bloomberg BNA noted two days before the election.

“We’re going to win. We’ve got the votes,” Murtha said on Chris Matthews’s MSNBC program the day before the ballot.

Hoyer was on the money and won easily, 149-86, despite Pelosi’s support of Murtha.

February 2006, House Majority Leader (Republicans): Three Republicans sought to succeed Tom DeLay of Texas. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri claimed the backing of 117 members, according to an AP story in late January 2006. Boehner, seeking a return to the Republican leadership after a seven-year absence, said he had between 90 to 95 private supporters. Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona said he had about 50 votes for the job.

“They can’t all be right, since the totals claimed by” the three candidates “far exceed the 232 lawmakers eligible to vote,” the AP story noted.

The actual totals: 110 for Blunt, 79 for Boehner and 40 for Shadegg. No candidate won the required majority on that first ballot, and Boehner then beat Blunt by 122 to 109 on the second ballot.

“It was a second-ballot strategy all along,” Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi, a Boehner ally, said at the time

No doubt that Scalise, Roskam and Stutzman are thinking about possible second-ballot strategies.

November 2004, National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman: Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina beat Norm Coleman of Minnesota by one vote, 28-27, to lead the political arm of Republican senators.

Two days before the vote, Coleman and Dole “both claimed” that they “have enough votes from their GOP colleagues” to win the NRSC chairmanship, the AP reported at the time.

Coleman thought he had it won.

“Somebody flipped on me in the end, and I know who it was,” Coleman told Ed Gillespie, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, according to Gillespie’s 2006 book “Winning Right.” The book didn’t identify the senator.

October 2001, House Minority Whip (Democrats): Pelosi defeated Hoyer by 118-95 after both claimed bigger numbers of supporters.

“Both did less well than predicted, as usually happens in secret-ballot leadership contests,” according to the Almanac of American Politics.

March 1989, House Minority Whip (Republicans). Newt Gingrich of Georgia defeated Ed Madigan of Illinois, 87-85, to succeed Dick Cheney after he was nominated for defense secretary. Two days before the vote, Madigan “said he had 93 people committed to him, enough to win,” the New York Times reported at the time. The day before the vote, “Madigan’s office was claiming 93 votes,” the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.

Gingrich, who was more confrontational than Madigan, won the No. 2 job under Minority Leader Bob Michel and then became speaker after the 1994 elections, when Michel retired and Republicans won a majority.



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