Whatever Happened to Leadership Races?

Despite a tumultuous election, leaders in both parties in both chambers are keeping their jobs with ease. That's increasingly normal.

House and Senate Republicans who emerged the big victors are set to keep their top leadership rosters intact in postelection party organizing sessions on Thursday—rosters headlined by House Speaker John Boehner and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is about to be reelected to his top Senate Democratic Caucus spot in voting also set for Thursday, despite his party's loss of its majority. It appears Reid will simply swap titles with McConnell, to become minority leader.

And in the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as of Wednesday appeared unchallenged in keeping her top job when House Democrats vote Tuesday. That, despite the fact that her party suffered a net loss of at least another 11 seats last week (some races have not been called) in the 435-seat House, adding up to a net loss of at least 66 seats since the tea party-fueled Republican takeover in 2010.

In addition, the top deputies to all of these leaders are expected to keep their posts for the next two-year session that begins in January.

This kind of stability isn't unusual. Members of leadership in the House and Senate are almost never removed from those positions by their colleagues. On very rare occasion, top leaders have faced challenges from other members for their jobs, but they're almost never successful. (Most recently, former Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina challenged Pelosi in 2010 and lost.)

And where there were contested races for other positions, most have been decided after one ballot. Exceptions include Boehner's upset in 2006 of then-Rep. Roy Blunt, who was the acting majority leader, after two ballots amid party turmoil. Former Rep. Dick Armey of Texas needed three ballots in 1998 to hold off challengers for his post as majority leader—the strongest being then-Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, a former football star.

Lawmakers, senior aides, and outside analysts dish out a laundry list of reasons for why there is such a lack of leadership changes or challenges, even for parties that have just faced significant defeats. They include tentativeness about turning off existing fundraising spigots; fear of retribution; party losses that, counterintuitively, may even bolster a current leader's base (and shrink that of potential challengers); blame placed elsewhere for defeats; and ever-rosy promises that a party revival may be just another election away.

In the House, the Republican election success has bred satisfaction.

Talk that the conservative discomfort with Boehner might render him a target for a challenge has dissipated given the party's election success last week, including the election of several more-moderate Republicans. GOP members also point out they only recently elected Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana as majority leader and whip, respectively (following former Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary defeat).

Pelosi, meanwhile,  is definitely a target of some grumbling among House Democrats. One House member told National Journal Wednesday, "I would vote for somebody other than Pelosi, and against our continued Californication in this caucus, if there was somebody else running—but there just isn't."

And a reason most often cited for that is a recognition within the caucus of Pelosi's immense fundraising prowess for the party. (As of Oct. 31, she has raised $101.3 million for Democrats, including $65.2 million directly for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Pelosi has now raised more than $428.8 million for Democrats since entering the leadership in 2002.) There's also squeamishness among ambitious, though lesser-known, Democrats who prefer to wait her out rather than risk losing and facing retribution or even permanent damage to their careers.

A smaller Democratic Caucus means Pelosi's more-liberal base has been strengthened; many of the party's moderates have lost or retired since 2010. That has meant the current No. 2 House Democrat—Minority Whip Steny Hoyer—has seen his "Blue Dog" base eroded through Republican pickups, undercutting chances he might himself take on Pelosi.

"There is no clear successor right now—not even Hoyer," said one former senior Democratic House aide.

Just as significantly, suggests Arizona State University historian Brooks Simpson, "Congressional Democrats don't see the 2014 elections as a verdict on their performance."

"They are not pointing fingers at each other. Instead they blame the result on unfavorable circumstances, the performance of the president, or general indicators and attitudes that they claim they can't influence. They simply await 2016," Simpson said.

In the Senate, the story is much the same. McConnell, Reid, and their leadership teams are expected to win reelection easily, despite a wave of new blood on the Republican side and heavy losses for Democrats in the midterms.

McConnell's team is riding high on its 2014 victories, and many Republicans credit the leader with helping to install a new majority. And although Democrats lost eight seats this cycle, few fault Reid, blaming instead a difficult map for the party and Republicans' success in tying members to President Obama.

The last time a sitting Senate leader was defeated by another member was in 1994, when then-Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi was elected Republican whip over the incumbent leader, Sen. Alan Simpson.

"After we took the majority in the Congress, I did challenge Al Simpson, who was the Republican whip," Lott said in an interview. "He was a good guy, he was funny ... but he wasn't an instinctive whip."

Still, Lott noted, it was no easy climb; in the end, he defeated Simpson by only a single vote. "If you're going to take on a leader, you better bring your lunch," Lott said, laughing.

There were many times earlier in his career when Lott, who went on to become majority leader, was urged by his colleagues to take on members of leadership, but he had declined. "On the one hand, it's an appreciation of what they had to go through, and on the other hand, it's the difficulty of defeating them."

Those in the current Senate also argued that the true seats of power lie outside of leadership. In terms of actual policy-making, heading a committee is much more effective than running for a leadership position. And for those with higher ambitions of power, gubernatorial and presidential races are often stronger draws.

"You don't have to be one of those positions in order to affect policy at all, or even practical measures. "¦ You've got people like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or others having just as much influence on the process as anybody in leadership," one Senate Republican aide said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date for the Democratic vote, which will be held Tuesday.