WASHINGTON — The typical pattern after a big election loss is for the party leader to fall on his or her sword. Republican Newt Gingrich stepped down as speaker and resigned his seat after the unexpected loss of five House seats in the 1998 midterm elections. But this year, so far, the strongest postelection ideological churning is on the side of the Republicans, who gained more than 60 seats in the House and at least 6 in the Senate.
“Both parties have at least as much of a challenge internally as they do bridging the huge gap between them,” says Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “But the bigger challenge is for Republican leaders who represent an establishment against this insurgent movement that they encouraged but now may come back to bite them,” he adds.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky faces no leadership challenge, formally. Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina, an early backer of tea party candidates, says he has no plans to challenge Mr. McConnell as Republican leader. Nor does he need to, as he has emerged from the 2010 cycle as the unofficial head of a newly empowered conservative wing of the party.
Mr. DeMint supported Sen.-elect Rand Paul over the establishment GOP candidate in McConnell’s home state. He was also an early backer of Senators-elect Marco Rubio in Florida, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Mike Lee in Utah, and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin – all of them backed by the tea party.
“I want to congratulate Rand Paul on winning a race that the leaders in his own party said he could not win,” DeMint said in a statement – referring to McConnell, without naming him. “Rand overcame difficult odds because he consistently stood up for conservative principles.”
Nor does he have regrets that some tea party picks may have cost Republicans the Senate. “Republicans aren’t ready to govern yet,” he told the Monitor before the midterm election. He says that a first step for Republicans in the new Congress is to push for a ban on all member projects, or earmarks.
“Tea Party Republicans were elected to go to Washington and save the country, not be co-opted by the club. So put on your boxing gloves, the fight begins today,” he wrote in an oped in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. DeMint is urging his new colleagues to focus their reform efforts on the Senate floor, rather than the committee process.
Not to be outflanked on the right, McConnell on Thursday laid down a fiery line in a speech before the conservative Heritage Foundation. He renewed calls to make the defeat of President Obama in 2012 the GOP’s top political priority.
He called the midterm elections a “report card on the administration and anyone who supported its agenda, plain and simple.”
McConnell also referenced “constitutional conservatism” – a mantra for tea party activists, and renewed calls for smaller government, lower taxes, and a strong defense.
“If our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill; to end the bailouts; cut spending; and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things,” he said. The White House has a choice, he added: “change course or double down on a vision of government that the American people have roundly rejected.”
On the House side, Republican leader John Boehner also faces no formal opposition. But the speaker-to-be will be managing a historically outsized freshman class. In a press conference on Wednesday, he said Republicans would be working on the American people’s priorities: creating jobs, cutting spending, and reforming the way Congress does its business.
Asked on ABC News Thursday evening whether he supported McConnell’s call to make defeat of President Obama the top GOP priority, Boehner said: “That’s Senator McConnell’s statement and his opinion.”
“I think the American people want us to focus on their message during the election: stop the spending, get rid of the uncertainty. Let’s get around to creating jobs again and staying focused on what the American people want us to focus on is my number one priority,” he added.
Republican whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, the current No. 2 in House Republican leadership, is running for House majority leader. In a letter to colleagues, he promised to change Congress, to “drain the swamp rather than learning to swim with the alligators.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who co-founded the “young gun” program to recruit House GOP candidates with Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is running to replace Mr. Cantor as whip. In a letter to colleagues Thursday, he said that Republicans must use conservative principles to create jobs and cut spending. “If we fail in this effort, we will find ourselves in the Minority once again, unworthy of redemption,” he wrote.
The colorful contest on the Republican side is for conference leader, the No. 4 leadership role responsible for messaging. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a leading fiscal conservative backed by Cantor, faces a challenge from Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who founded and chairs the House Tea Party Caucus. Ms. Bachmann is backed by conservative activist and FOX TV host Glenn Beck, who is urging his supporters to call their GOP representatives to vote for her.
“All across American conservatives won big and it’s important that a constitutional conservative be at the leadership table,” says Bachmann spokesman Sergio Gor. The Tea Party Caucus has some 50 members in the current Congress and is expecting dozens more, he says. “She recruited over 50 challengers, a lot of whom got elected, and it’s important to bring that into leadership,” he added.
“She brings excitement and energy to House Republican leadership, a fresh face and a female face – someone more closely aligned with some of the tea party idealism and activism that was so important in this election. But at the same time, she brings recklessness,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University.
The unknown in the post-election leadership shakeout is the intentions of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. For now, members are waiting for Pelosi to consult with colleagues and family over her next moves. In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer on Wednesday, Pelosi said she was still “very confident about the decisions that we made,” but added that it’s a question whether leadership should have been “talking about it more and working on it less.”
More than a dozen House Democrats called for Pelosi to step down during the 2010 campaign. A powerful and respected speaker, Pelosi prodded her caucus to take tough votes on the assurance that the public would support health-care reform, once its features were understood. That advice did not pan out. But some left-leaning Democrats are already saying that the way to reactivate frustrated Democratic voters is to push a more progressive agenda.
In a memo released Thursday, Democratic strategists Ed Kilgore, James Vega, and J.P. Green urged Democrats to resist being drawn into a “Dems in disarray” narrative. “It is urgent that Democrats seriously try to agree upon certain basic understandings about how to maintain the maximum degree of unity and cohesion as a political coalition and community while still engaging in a robust internal debate about the meaning and lessons of the election,” they wrote in The Democratic Strategist.