Fuzzy Math of Congressional Leadership Elections: Beware Predictions (Part 2)

The three-way race to replace House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy is heating up, and it continues to whet our appetite for congressional leadership elections.

Intrigue attaches to these internal races. They’re secret-ballot elections that can go to multiple ballots, and how you ask for votes is important. Vote totals often fall short of commitments because members lie to colleagues. Losses can sting because they’re delivered by colleagues who know them best.

Political Capital took a look yesterday at some compelling leadership elections. There was so much on the cutting-room floor, though, that we’ve prepared a second installment. (A hat tip to Mark Greenbaum, a writer, friend and political trivia enthusiast who knows a lot about this subject.)

January 1971, House Majority Leader (Democrats): “Do you know how to tell the difference between a cactus and a caucus? With a cactus the pricks are on the outside.”

According to former Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, Mo Udall of Arizona said that after losing to Hale Boggs of Louisiana on the second ballot in a five-way race for the No. 2 leadership position in the House.

Udall’s backers included Obey, then a junior congressman who decades later related lessons learned after Udall’s vote total fell short of the number of people who supposedly promised to vote for him.

“If you wanted a hard count of your vote, the question you had to ask was not ‘How are you on the majority leader’s race?’ or ‘Can we count on your vote for Mo?’ The only right question was ‘Can we count on you to vote for Mo on every ballot?’” Obey wrote in a 2007 memoir, “Raising Hell for Justice.”

“And even then, some of your colleagues would look you in the eye and lie through their teeth,” Obey wrote.

January 1971, Senate Majority Whip (Democrats): Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who had surprisingly unseated incumbent Whip Russell Long of Louisiana in 1969, was himself blindsided by Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who never even announced his candidacy for the job. Byrd won 31-24.

Kennedy had antagonized past supporters like Sens. Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson of Washington state after he opposed federal funding for supersonic transport important to Boeing Co.

After losing to Byrd, Kennedy would refer to “the 28 Democratic Senators who pledged to vote for me” and “the 24 who actually did,” Adam Clymer wrote in a biography of Kennedy.

Among those promoting Byrd for the job was the master of the Senate himself, Lyndon B. Johnson, the former majority leader and president who lobbied senators while in retirement on his Texas ranch. LBJ “was ecstatic” upon hearing Byrd won the election, Byrd wrote in a memoir, “Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.”

Years later, Kennedy wrote that the outcome worked out for both men. Byrd was well-suited for the whip job, and Kennedy was freed up to focus on committee work.

“Robert Byrd went on to do an admirable job in the role, and eventually became a distinguished majority leader,” Kennedy wrote in a 2009 memoir. “As for me, the defeat served as a prompt to immerse myself more deeply in the necessary basic work of a U.S. Senator.”

December 1976, House Majority Leader (Democrats): For a good treatment of this epic four-way race to succeed incoming Speaker Tip O’Neill, consult John Jacobs’s biography of one of the contenders, Phil Burton of California.

Burton, a vodka-drinking political encyclopedia, was “a force in many ways” and “loud and gregarious and pointed and direct, but very smart on the politics,” one of his protégés, Rep. George Miller of California, said on C-Span earlier this year.

“Burton was counting on 117 votes on the first ballot,” Jacobs wrote, though he actually received 106, compared with 81 for Richard Bolling of Missouri (who expected 100), 77 for Jim Wright of Texas and 31 for Majority Whip John McFall of California.

On the second ballot, which excluded McFall, Burton moved up just one vote to 107, while Wright leapfrogged Bolling, 95-93. Wright then beat Burton on the final ballot by one vote, 148-147. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, who was corralling votes for Wright, got Rep. Thomas “Lud” Ashley of Ohio to switch his vote to Wright from Burton after explaining to Ashley that O’Neill preferred Wright.

Burton was “the only man who lost the speakership of the House because of style,” O’Neill said, according to a biography by John A. Farrell. “There were an awful lot of people that, when the chips were down and Phil needed them, they weren’t with him.”

March 1989, House Minority Whip (Republicans). Political Capital yesterday touched on the race between Newt Gingrich, the confrontational Georgia Republican, and the more compromise-minded Ed Madigan of Illinois. There are more compelling details to share.

According to a memoir by former Speaker Dennis Hastert, who was then a second-term Illinois congressman backing Madigan, the vote was 86-86 when Rep. Lawrence Coughlin, a centrist Republican from suburban Philadelphia, “succumbed to pressure” from Gingrich ally Bob Walker, also of Pennsylvania, and shifted his vote to Gingrich from Madigan.

Hastert said that Gingrich smartly stitched together a winning coalition from colleagues in the Conservative Opportunity Society, a Gingrich-founded group of House conservatives, and on the transportation committee. Gingrich also courted northeastern moderates who supported acid-rain legislation opposed by Madigan, who was concerned the restrictions would hurt his state’s coal industry.

Reps. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin and Fred Upton of Michigan “should have been Madigan people, but they jumped on Newt’s bandwagon and that’s how he won,” Hastert wrote.

December 1994, House Majority Whip (Republican): Gingrich became Speaker and Dick Armey of Texas became majority leader after the national Republican upswing, and there was an opening for the No. 3 spot in the leadership. Walker, Tom DeLay of Texas and Bill McCollum of Florida sought the spot. DeLay secured an outright victory on the first ballot, with 119 votes to 80 for Walker and 28 for McCollum.

Campaigning for the party’s candidates and making political contributions are prerequisites for entering the leadership ranks. DeLay “campaigned in 25 states in 1994, and contributed to large numbers of Republican candidates, responsible for his dispersal of $2 million in campaign funds by his own count,” according to the Almanac of American Politics.

December 1994, Senate Minority Leader (Democrats). The retirement of Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, and an incoming Republican majority, created a vacancy for Minority Leader. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Chris Dodd of Connecticut each had 23 votes.

“Or at least we thought we did,” Daschle wrote in a 2003 memoir, “Like No Other Time.”

“There were a few whose votes neither of us could count on for sure. In elections like this, one needs to reconfirm commitments in some cases with regularity,” he wrote.

A little luck helps. The day before the vote, Daschle found Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell on his Harley in a parking lot and asked for the Colorado Democrat’s support. Campbell said he’d be out of town and would miss the vote. Daschle asked for his vote by proxy, unsure if Campbell’s vote would even be considered valid. It was, and Campbell turned out to be the tiebreaker in Daschle’s 24-23 win. Campbell switched to the Republican Party a few months later.

November 2004, Senate Minority Leader (Democrats): After Daschle was defeated for re-election, his top lieutenant, Harry Reid of Nevada, quickly rounded up the votes to succeed him as party leader. Dodd also was looking at the race a decade after losing to Daschle.

The morning after the election, “it was not yet dawn in Las Vegas as I sat in the high-roller suite at the Rio in my pajamas and began to dial Democratic senators back East, tell them that I was running” to replace Daschle, “and ask for their support.” Reid said had a majority of commitments “by late morning,” and after showering, getting dressed, and saying a prayer, Dodd called to say he wouldn’t run. Reid is now the Majority Leader.

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