In a pair of well-sourced stories in the Weekly Standard, Republicans have proposed a daring gambit for midterm success: An early vote for a new speaker of the House, which would sideline a retiring Paul D. Ryan while putting Democrats “on the spot” about their own choice of speaker. The first version of the idea came via Haley Byrd on Sunday:
It would trigger a vote to replace Ryan, giving McCarthy an opening to become speaker of the House — that is, if he can avoid crashing and burning on takeoff like he did in 2015. But it would also force Democrats to cast votes for — or against — Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a favorite target of Republican campaign strategists, to be speaker. That vote could then be used against vulnerable Democrats during the height of campaign season, the source said.
The second version — which, to be fair, might be the same as the first version — came via Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who spoke at a Weekly Standard conference.
“Wouldn’t it be great to force a Democrat running in a tight race to have to put up or shut up about voting for Nancy Pelosi eight weeks before an election?” Mulvaney asked. “That’s a really, really good vote for us to force if we can figure out how to do it.”
Some bad ideas are bad on their own merits. This one’s bad because it reveals a high-level Republican misunderstanding of the dynamics among House Democrats.
The Pelosi rebellion is happening with candidates, not incumbents. You could almost stop right there. The Pelosi issue has been weaponized against Democrats in special elections and swing seats — i.e., people who are not yet in elected office. If you’re not currently in Congress, you don’t get a vote on speaker this year. Seems simple enough.
There are just a handful of Democrats who are vulnerable enough to worry about this. Who’s most vulnerable to a Pelosi attack ad? Well, nearly every Democrat currently serving in the House has already voted for Pelosi, and most are in safe seats. After the 2016 election, there are just 13 districts represented by Democrats where voters preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton.
Four of them — Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.), Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), and Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) — are leaving their seats this year. Walz and Rosen are seeking higher office, so, theoretically a Pelosi vote could be used against them. But both of their states are far more Democratic than their districts.
Five more of the Trump District 13 are basically safe for reelection. Republicans failed to recruit a top-shelf challenger to Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), who has more than $1 million on hand; his strongest opponent has less than $20,000. Republicans also settled for second-tier challengers to Rep. David Loebsack (D-Iowa), Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who might be the luckiest of all Trump-district Democrats, as her main opponent dropped out after it was too late for the party to draft a replacement. (Kind voted against Pelosi for speaker last year.)
That means there are just four Democrats in Trump districts who might sweat an 11th-hour Pelosi vote: Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.). Gottheimer and O’Halleran have districts that have been trending Democratic. Lamb fits into another category.
Some Democrats would relish a vote against Pelosi. We don’t know which 63 Democrats backed Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) over Pelosi in the party’s post-election 2016 vote. We can assume that a few would love to vote against Pelosi before an election. Lamb, who told voters that he wanted new leadership in Congress, would get a shot to prove it, months before facing voters in a new (and only marginally Republican) district. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who is now running for Senate and has opposed Pelosi before, would get a free vote against her.
Pelosi has been clear on this issue: She does not care whether candidates pledge to support her or not, so long as they win. Teeing up a vote on her leadership would allow a bunch of Democrats to cast doubt on whether Pelosi will be able to return to power even if they win the House. That’s not really what Mulvaney wants to happen.
Come on, like Republicans need a reason to use Pelosi in election ads? Thirty-four percent of all Republican ads in this midterm cycle have attacked Pelosi. Republicans cheerfully promise that they’ll keep up that theme all year. “Putting the Democrats on the spot” with a Pelosi vote would be like putting up a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks, and downstairs from yet another Starbucks.
What could actually shift the narrative that Democrats want to put together ahead of the midterms? A bill that would restore cost-sharing subsidies to Affordable Care Act exchange plans, maybe. A Dream Act that takes a hyper-popular Democratic issue off the board. But Republicans believe they can win the midterms without concessions on either issue — and attacking Pelosi comes naturally.