A 2015 rebellion against John Boehner would be unprecedented

House Speaker John Boehner appears to be confident that he’ll retain his leadership position after the 2014 elections. As well he should: Since 1900, no speaker has overseen a pick-up of House seats and subsequently lost his job.

The question of Boehner’s job security has been a recurring theme of the past few months, a subset of the Tea Party-versus-establishment tension that flared into open warfare during the government shutdown. On Monday, Boehner reintroduced the topic when he told the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith that he was “living on borrowed time,” as Politico’s Jake Sherman reported. Saying he couldn’t “predict what’s going to happen,” Boehner seemed to suggest that, while he was confident he’d win reelection as House speaker, his medium-term future in the House is up in the air. (Having recently purchased a house in Florida, Boehner’s distant future seems to be clear.)

Again, Boehner is justified in being confident about being reelected as Speaker. Since 1900, there have been 22 changes in the position, including Boehner’s ascension in 2011. The way Boehner got the job is the most common: the Republican Party won a majority in the 2010 House elections. Here’s the breakdown of how each of the other transitions has occurred. (As you might expect: blue bars represent Democratic speakers; red, Republican.)

Speaker transitions since 1900

SpeakerChanges

There are a lot of fascinating stories buried in that graph. But for our purposes, we’ll focus on the 12 transitions that weren’t the result of party switches. Three of them — three in a row, in fact — were the result of deaths. Then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) resigned after being implicated in accepting improper gifts. Several saw the writing on the wall, retiring in the face of difficult primary fights. John Nance Garner left his position to become Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president.

But no one’s situation mirrors Boehner’s: un-mired in scandal and clear of any serious primary challenge. According to the most recent projections from the Virginia Center for Politics, Republicans are expected to gain five to eight seats in the House; The Post’s Election Lab sees the Republicans gaining four. In the past century-plus, no speaker who has been reelected to the House has been kicked out of his job after his party gained seats.


(The closest parallel is probably Newt Gingrich, who was booted from his leadership position shortly after the 1998 elections. He faced an uprising from within his party similar to what Boehner could face — but the GOP also lost seats in the election and Gingrich had predicted major gains for his side.)

If Boehner does make it to 2016 as Speaker and decides not to head for the Sunshine State at that point, one extra bit of good news: changes in House leadership are much more likely to happen after midterms. Excepting the three unfortunate speakers who died in office, 12 of the 19 changes happened after midterm elections. Boehner may be literally living on borrowed time (which was his point: that he’s getting older), but his position within the House seems to be on pretty solid ground.

Assuming the November elections go to plan.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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