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Notes on the State of Politics: Oct. 4, 2023

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features short updates on elections and politics.

The Editors

The McCarthy fallout

On one side of the Capitol yesterday, now-Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-CA) became the Senate’s newest member. Appointed to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who died last week, Butler took office as Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) made good on his pledge to appoint a Black woman in the event Feinstein’s seat opened up. It remains to be seen if Butler will simply serve as a placeholder or actually run for the seat in her own right next year — the filing deadline is in early December, and the field already includes several big names.

On most days, Butler’s historic appointment — she is only the third Black woman to serve in the chamber — may have been the main story on the Hill. But members of the House had other plans: The biggest story of the day actually involved one of Butler’s Bakersfield-area constituents.

In a move that made history, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R, FL-1), who is perhaps best described as a nihilist conservative, put forward a motion to vacate the speakership. Since January, the Speaker’s office has been occupied by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-20), who prevailed after a marathon 15 rounds of balloting. Given the narrow, 222-213 majority that Republicans claimed after the 2022 elections, McCarthy’s rise to the speakership involved placating several hardline members who seemed intent on making his path to the House’s top job as cumbersome as possible. One of the concessions that conservatives extracted was a rule enabling a single member to call for a motion to vacate the speakership at any time.

Despite the historic nature of yesterday’s vote, it’s hard to say yesterday’s outcome was surprising, considering the overall dynamics of the House. Gaetz and Co. had been threatening for some time to bring up a motion to vacate against McCarthy. Meanwhile, the now-former speaker did not seem to give Democrats much reason to rescue him: most recently, McCarthy went on Face the Nation and bashed House Democrats for their role in allegedly trying to sink a continuing resolution that they ultimately were critical to passing. After all this, 8 GOP rebels joined a unified Democratic caucus to oust McCarthy by a 216-210 vote yesterday.

McCarthy has been a partisan speaker, but of course one could say the same thing of speakers more generally, including the most recent Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi. The difference is that the Democrats, despite some internal differences, have stuck together on leadership votes, sometimes suffering defections but not ones that are actually decisive. The Republican Conference, obviously, is different — we saw this in McCarthy’s painful bid to win the speakership at the opening of this Congress, and we saw it again yesterday.

As of this writing, the House does not have a real speaker. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R, NC-10), a prominent ally of the deposed McCarthy, is the temporary speaker as of now.

For his part, McCarthy has ruled out running for the speakership again. While it’s possible that some of his fellow Republicans could launch an effort to draft him, it seems more likely that his days in leadership are over and that his time in the House may be nearing an end. Now-former Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement coincided with the House GOP’s wipeout election in 2018 — he announced his retirement in advance of that election — while former Speaker John Boehner seemed to abruptly throw in the towel in 2015, a decision that was driven in large part by his constant battles with his far-right members and the possibility that he might’ve eventually suffered the same fate that has now befallen McCarthy. Pelosi’s relatively graceful exit from the speakership seems the anomaly here: after only barely losing the majority in last year’s elections, she was able to elevate her preferred successor to lead her caucus and remains broadly popular among Democrats. But the difference in party label is important here too.

With McCarthy out of the picture, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R, LA-1) would seem like the next Republican in line for the speakership. When Scalise was first angling for a leadership role, back in 2015, part of his appeal was that he was a true “red state” conservative — Ryan, Boehner, and McCarthy, for instance, came from states that were blue or purple (although in Boehner’s case, Ohio has reddened since then). Scalise was nearly killed at an infamous 2017 congressional baseball practice shooting and won some bipartisan goodwill during his recovery. Current Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R, MN-6) was initially mentioned as a prospect for Speaker, but he is reportedly more interested in succeeding Scalise as majority leader (Emmer has endorsed Scalise for speaker).

Other GOP names that have been floated for the speakership are Reps. Jim Jordan (R, OH-4) and Kevin Hern (R, OK-1), both of whom received votes for the job during the multi-round contest where McCarthy was ultimately elected. Jordan, who has used his position on the Judiciary Committee to constantly harangue Democrats, would probably be the most polarizing realistic option (although we may note former President Donald Trump’s name has been mentioned by some Republicans, as the speaker does not have to actually be a member of the House). Hern, a comparatively lower profile option, leads the Republican Study Committee, a group which comprises about 70% of the GOP conference.

In the end, House Republicans may well end up with a more conservative speaker. But in an environment where Republicans should be well-positioned — yesterday, for instance, a Gallup poll found Republicans have a historically large advantage on economic issues — they risk being seen as a party that can’t govern.

We doubt there is much actual political fallout here, but one thing to monitor going forward is how much more dysfunctional the House becomes. The chances of a shutdown, which McCarthy narrowly avoided thanks to Democratic votes over the weekend, just shot up, as we are going to be doing the shutdown dance again in November and the new GOP speaker (assuming there is one) may need to take a harder line in an attempt to satiate his most insatiable members. It may be that this speaker gets a reprieve from some of the hardliners simply because he or she is not McCarthy. Democrats, meanwhile, declined to throw McCarthy a lifeline during the motion to vacate, opting en masse to vote with the Republican rebels. The Democrats seemed legitimately angry at McCarthy for offering them less than nothing for their support, which he clearly needed (or he just needed some Democrats to vote present on the motion to vacate, allowing loyal Republicans to deliver a majority of those voting).

Democrats also will likely relish the continued turbulence on the Republican side. That said, there are risks to them, too. Yes, it would probably be easy to blame Republicans for a future shutdown, but an extended one that has an impact on the economy could have repercussions for the president, too, as Washington Monthly’s Bill Scher argued when he suggested that Democrats bail out McCarthy. The Democrats voting for the motion to vacate is somewhat reminiscent of how their campaign arms, and their associated PACs, backed weak MAGA candidates in GOP primaries last year — perfectly defensible politically but also not the sort of thing that is likely to elevate the more reasonable Republicans that Democrats often claim to want. That said, the readily apparent lack of discipline on the Republican side is not the fault of Democrats, and it’s natural for any political party to want to exacerbate the other side’s fissures and problems.

One final point: Despite his rocky rise to the top and short tenure as Speaker, McCarthy had been a prodigious fundraiser for House Republicans. Over the last several cycles, Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC he was aligned with, emerged as one of the most formidable outside spending groups in House races. With McCarthy out, there may be some negative effects on GOP fundraising.

A likely Democratic pickup in Alabama

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating change

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
Barry Moore (R, AL-2) Safe Republican Likely Democratic

Almost four months ago, the Supreme Court issued its somewhat surprising ruling in the Allen v. Milligan case. To the dismay of Alabama Republicans, the high court essentially agreed with a lower court ruling, maintaining that the state’s seven-district congressional map should feature two Black-majority (or near-majority) seats. In response, GOP legislators passed a map that was quite clearly in violation of the court’s ruling. It seemed that Republicans, led by state Attorney General Steve Marshall, were hoping that the Supreme Court would revisit the Milligan case and issue a more favorable ruling. But last week, the high court signaled that the case was closed, and Marshall admitted defeat shortly after.

The Alabama saga is coming close to an end, at least for now, as a special master appointed by the lower court presented three potential replacement maps. It seems likely that one of the trio will be adopted for the 2024 cycle (indeed, the new map could be announced at any time — it had not come out as of mid-day Wednesday).

All three of the special master’s plans keep AL-7 as a heavily Democratic seat — based in Birmingham, it takes in a selection of Black Belt counties. It seems likely that Rep. Terri Sewell, the sole Democrat in the state’s delegation, will seek reelection there, as she lives in the Birmingham area, and has roots in Selma, which the district retains. Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton is considering challenging Sewell in the primary, but, from the Democratic perspective, we’re not sure what the case against Sewell would be.

Under all the special master’s scenarios, AL-2 becomes the second heavily Black seat, although it is not as heavily Democratic as AL-7. As we predicted in late July, it seems likely that AL-2 will take shape as a district that follows Interstate 65 from Mobile to Montgomery. According to data supplied to the court, Biden would have carried the potential new 2nd Districts by margins ranging from 10 to 13 points. These districts remind us a lot of Georgia’s 2nd District, which sits right across the border: roughly half-Black, it is a 55%-44% Biden seat where longtime Rep. Sanford Bishop (D) typically outpaces the rest of his ticket.

If GA-2 were open, we probably wouldn’t have it as Safe Democratic, as we currently do. So we’ll apply that same reasoning to the (likely) new AL-2: though Democrats have a good chance to flip this seat, we’ll start it off as Likely Democratic.

Finally, with the creation of a second Democratic-leaning seat, GOP Reps. Jerry Carl (R, AL-1) and Barry Moore (R, AL-2) have been forced into a single, deeply red district. The former hails from the Mobile area while the latter is from the Wiregrass region, in the southeastern corner of the state. While the layout of the new 1st District would favor Carl — roughly 60% of the new seat would be familiar to him — we saw in last year’s primaries that geography isn’t everything in GOP primaries: in large part because of their Trump endorsements, Reps. Mary Miller (R, IL-15) and Alex Mooney (R, WV-2) were able to overcome steep disadvantages on that front. While we’ll see if Trump actually gets involved in the primary, Moore has gotten support from the Club for Growth, an influential player on the GOP side, in his past campaigns. Carl, who seems a more parochially-minded member, may emphasize his place on the Appropriations Committee. This Trump +50 seat remains Safe Republican regardless of which incumbent makes the general election.

Finally, on a housekeeping note, while we are expecting Moore to run in AL-1 (if he seeks reelection), he has not formally announced his plans and is still the incumbent in the 2nd District. Our verbiage in Table 1 reflects this. Carl, on the other hand, is running for reelection in AL-1. In any case, we had previously moved an unspecified GOP-held Alabama district from Safe Republican to Likely Democratic, for the purposes of overall House math; this move formalizes that district, specifically, as the new AL-2.

Center for Politics honors Wilder as Defender of Democracy

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is the recipient of the Center for Politics’ second annual Defender of Democracy Award. Wilder, a Democrat, was the nation’s first elected Black governor, winning election in 1989. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato presented Wilder with the award at the UVA Rotunda’s Dome Room on Friday.

“Time and time again, Doug Wilder achieved what most others believed was impossible, battling against some of the most powerful people and institutions in America and their narrow-minded, exclusionary views of who could and could not hold elected office in this country. In so doing, Doug Wilder gifted to the nation and the world a broader and more inclusive understanding of the word ‘democracy’ itself, and he continues to pave new paths for current and future generations of Americans,” Sabato said.

The Center for Politics created the Defender of Democracy Award in 2022 with special project award funding provided by the Larry J. Sabato Foundation. The award honors and recognizes individuals whose positive actions help improve or strengthen democracy. Nine U.S. Capitol and D.C. Metropolitan Police Officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 were the recipients of the inaugural Defender of Democracy award last year.

To read more about Wilder and the presentation, see this report from Bryan McKenzie at UVA Today. We have also posted the video on our YouTube channel, UVACFP.

— Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik contributed to this article.