Newt Gingrich’s tenure as speaker of the House casts a long shadow over the landscape of American politics — so long, in fact, that we often forget his tenure only lasted for four years.
Few other House speakers have had such an outsized influence on the political landscape since World War II, and almost all of them lasted far longer in the position. Sam Rayburn served 16 years, Tip O’Neill served 10.
Even those who didn’t leave their mark politically spent longer in office. From the anodyne (Democrat John W. McCormack of Massachusetts, distinguished by nothing except for being a walking advertisement for term limits who managed to serve in the House from 1928 until 1971, spent almost nine years as speaker) to the disgraced (Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois, later a convicted felon who admitted to being a serial child molester, spent eight undistinguished years in the office), there are no shortage of other speakers who’ve served in the office for longer than Gingrich.
The Republican Party didn’t lose control of the House when Gingrich quit in 1998. In fact, they wouldn’t lose control of the lower chamber until after the 2006 midterms, when Nancy Pelosi replaced, um, Dennis Hastert. Why would Gingrich walk away?
Put bluntly, the House GOP’s performance in the 1998 midterms was eerily similar to the House Democrats’ 2020 performance.
They didn’t lose the House, mind you, although the likelihood of that happening roughly correlated with the likelihood of President Kanye. And while the anticipated “blue wave” didn’t happen — Joe Biden will likely only win the popular vote by a few percentage points instead of the massive victory augured in most polls and the Democrats’ path to retake the Senate is exceptionally narrow as of Thursday morning — the performance of the House Democrats was easily the biggest aggregate disappointment of Election Day for the left.
Pelosi tried to put a positive spin on things speaking late Tuesday: “I’m very, very proud of the fact that tonight, relatively early, we’re able to say that we have held the House,” Pelosi said, according to a transcript of her speech. “Our purpose in this race was to win so that we could protect the Affordable Care Act, and that we could crush the virus.”
Her ability to do either, so much as she can, may be attenuated by how the Democrats maintained their House majority, however.
The New York Times put together a helpful chart which showed every House seat and the likelihood of each party winning. The seats were grouped into five columns: seats where Democrats or Republicans were expected to win easily, seats where Democrats or Republicans were expected to win narrowly and toss-ups.
Let’s disregard the first two categories. The interest lay in the middle three columns, where the races were supposed to be narrowly decided for either side or where no consensus existed. The Times’ readership no doubt cued up the page on Tuesday evening, expecting those columns to fill with blue.
That’s how it started. As of Thursday morning, here’s how it’s going:
Just a quick primer in case you’re confused: Decided seats that flipped parties are denoted with stripes.
In only two of the toss-up seats — California’s 25th Congressional District and Utah’s 4th — were Democrats leading as of Thursday morning. Only one of these would be a flip: California’s 25th, formerly held by the scandal-plagued Katie Hill. The rest of the uncalled seats in the tossup column show Republican leads of varying strengths.
The remainder of the toss-ups have Republicans flipping five seats and holding serve on the rest of them.
The Democrats have flipped no seats Republicans were expected to win narrowly. Democrats did flip two seats that Republicans were expected to lose narrowly. At the same time, Republicans flipped three seats in that latter column.
In a letter to the Democratic House caucus regarding the election results, Pelosi wasn’t particularly effective or sanguine in her rhetoric.
“Though it was a challenging election, all of our candidates … made us proud,” Pelosi wrote in the letter. “Our success enabled us to win in our ‘mobilization, messaging and money,’ forcing Republicans to defend their own territory.”
Yes — and they did so effectively, which is a problem.
“At least seven House Democratic incumbents lost their re-election races, including first-term moderates in Florida, New Mexico and South Carolina and even the long-serving chairman of the House Agriculture Committee,” Bloomberg’s Billy House noted.
“This has immediate implications for Pelosi’s leverage leading the party’s negotiations with the Trump administration on a new round of coronavirus relief. There has been grumbling — including from some of the Democrats who lost Tuesday — about her top-down approach to the talks and her resolve to hold out for a package worth more than $2 trillion.
“Pelosi will also face pressure from the growing progressive wing of the party, which will have additional clout with a handful of new members who won primaries against senior incumbents,” House continued. “While Republicans depict Pelosi as a liberal lightning rod, members on the left of her caucus complain she has actually been too timid when it comes to proposals like Medicare for All and the environmental measures included in the Green New Deal.”
It’s not just the left that wants her gone, but the more traditionally liberal wing of the party wouldn’t mind her leaving, either.
The Hill reported Thursday that two “moderate” Democrats said “they were reaching out to their colleagues about backing one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), for Speaker in the next Congress.”
“He’s the only one prepared and positioned” for the role, one of the lawmakers told The Hill anonymously. “He bridges moderates and progressives better than anyone. And most importantly, he’s not Nancy Pelosi.”
And that’s where Gingrich comes in. During the 1998 midterms, Gingrich was supposed to expand the Republican majority in the House significantly, particularly since the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton had just gotten underway. Clinton was perceived as wildly unpopular after the Starr Report, published that September, detailed his sexual relationship with a White House intern and how he’d both lied about it under oath and allegedly tried to obstruct justice.
The perception was wrong. The Republicans didn’t win a landslide in the House. They didn’t even win a few seats, as the party that doesn’t control the White House almost always does in the midterms.
The House Republicans lost seats — and, facing a potential challenge to his leadership, Gingrich resigned as House speaker just four years after the so-called “Republican Revolution” he helped lead.
“Today I have reached a difficult personal decision,” he said in a statement at the time, according to The Washington Post. “The Republican conference needs to be unified, and it is time for me to move forward where I believe I still have a significant role to play for our country and our party.”
Will Nancy Pelosi do the same thing? She’s faced a similar crossroads during her time as Democratic minority leader in 2017. After Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a House special election in Georgia that Democrats poured money into, there were calls for her to step aside.
After all, the Democrats had been the minority party in the lower chamber since 2011 — and while the Karen Handel-Jon Ossoff 2017 race wouldn’t have affected that in any substantive way, it would have been the first major symbolic triumph for the party in the Trump administration #Resistance era.
“I think I’m worth the trouble,” Pelosi said at the time.
If you define “trouble” as “flubbing it at the ballot box,” 2018 seemed to indicate trouble was gone.
It merely went into remission, however, and Tuesday was a full-blown relapse of trouble.
It’s certainly not the first time that’s happened since she took over as the leader of the House Democratic caucus in 2003.
If she were to follow in the steps of Newt Gingrich, it ought to be the last one. He resigned within days of a performance like this, and in an election that didn’t carry the same consequences.
I’d argue Nancy Pelosi was never worth the trouble, but she certainly isn’t now.
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