hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2023


Area House members differ on speaker choice

Molinaro’s shifting stance draws questions as 2024 looms


Contributing writer


The 22-day fight among Republicans over the selection of a new House speaker could have ramifications for next year’s elections in New York, where U.S. Rep. Marcus Molinaro is among five GOP freshman defending swing districts for a party increasingly dominated by hard-right conservatives.

At the same time, political experts say Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, appears to have elevated her political profile among House Republicans by staying out of the speakership race and remaining the highest-ranking member of the House GOP leadership who didn’t seek the top job.

And area Reps. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, Becca Balint, D-Vt., and Richard Neal, D-Mass., remained united with their fellow Democrats behind their party’s leader in a series of floor votes for speaker.

“On my way to vote for Hakeem Jeffries for speaker the 19th time,” Balint posted on Facebook on Oct. 25, just before the final vote in which Republican Mike Johnson of Louisiana was elected speaker.

Balint was referring to the 15 votes it took for Republican Kevin McCarthy of California to be elected speaker in January, as well as the four floor votes for a new speaker held last month after the House voted Oct. 3 to remove McCarthy from the position.

McCarthy’s ouster, unprecedented for a House speaker in the midst of a congressional session, was set in motion by a small group of hard-right Republicans who were upset after he struck a deal with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1. (The deal temporarily extended the federal budget from the previous fiscal year but did not include the steep spending cuts some conservatives had been demanding.)

When a vote on retaining McCarthy as speaker went to the floor on Oct. 3, just eight Republicans joined with Democrats to eject him. His removal effectively halted all House business for three weeks until a new speaker could be selected.

What followed were a chaotic series of meetings of the House GOP conference that produced a succession of three speaker nominees — Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the majority leader; Jim Jordan of Ohio, the Judiciary Committee chairman; and Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the majority whip. But each of them wound up withdrawing when it became clear they couldn’t corral enough votes among members of their party’s slim majority.

The speaker selection process also was shaped by questions of loyalty to former President Donald Trump, who offered criticism of Scalise and strong opposition to Emmer. Jordan, a close ally of Trump, lost three floor votes in which he was opposed by a shifting band of about 20 Republicans, including several New York moderates and, in the third vote, Molinaro.

Johnson finally won the speakership with unanimous GOP support and Trump’s endorsement.


Molinaro’s swing vote
Throughout the speaker selection process, pundits were closely watching Molinaro, a moderate who is a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, to see how his votes might affect his 2024 re-election bid.

Molinaro, R-Rhinebeck, played down the significance of the speaker vote on next year’s election when he spoke with reporters in Washington on Oct. 16. He said voters are more concerned about whether the speaker pays attention to issues important to his district, rather that the choice of which individual serves as speaker.

“I think most of the people I represent wouldn’t know the speaker of the House if they backed over him with a pickup truck — and I hope that they don’t,” he said in an impromptu press conference, broadcast on C-SPAN, a day before the first of three floor votes on whether to elect Jordan as speaker.

Molinaro left some observers puzzled when he voted for Jordan on the first two ballots, and then rejected the conservative firebrand on the third roll call — instead casting his vote for former Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island, who left Congress last year to mount an unsuccessful bid for governor of New York. Molinaro joined three other moderate Republicans from New York swing districts who had voted for Zeldin as a protest against Jordan in the first two rounds.

Responding to criticism on social media, Molinaro said his vote against Jordan in the third round was not political posturing but an attempt to move the process forward.

“I voted for him twice because I believed he could unite our conference,” Molinaro said of Jordan in a Facebook post. “I worked toward that goal and after four days and two votes it became clear that we remained divided. Rather than a third vote, I recommended, with others, we return to a conference meeting to organize. After that … 112 members called on him to withdraw.”

Political experts agree to a point with Molinaro that the particular person serving as speaker is not a major issue for many voters.

“I don’t think the speakership vote is going to be a determining factor in elections,” said Matt Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.

“I don’t think people have ever cast their vote based on who the speaker is,” said David Catalfamo, a Republic strategist from Wilton, N.Y., who ran unsuccessfully for a local state Assembly seat in 2020 and 2022.

But that doesn’t mean Democrats won’t attempt to make it an issue, particularly in a district like Molinaro’s that is among a mere 30 competitive House seats in the nation, Dickinson said.
And in past years, both parties have at times demonized House speakers of the opposing party — from Newt Gingrich to Nancy Pelosi — to galvanize their own party’s voters in congressional races.

The Democrats’ strategy amid last month’s battle over the speakership clearly took shape with the 2024 elections in mind, Dickinson said.

Democrats, he explained, want to portray Republicans on the campaign trail as dysfunctional and divisive, while portraying their own party as united.

Tonko drove home that message in an Oct. 23 post to his campaign Facebook page, warning that “19 days without a House Speaker is 19 days of stalled progress.”

“The world is watching,” Tonko wrote, “and Republican inaction shows their inability to lead.”
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist from New York City, said Republicans’ struggle to choose a new speaker won’t be a determining factor for many voters. But it could heighten the determination of those voters most concerned about abortion rights and the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

Johnson, the newly minted House speaker, is a former constitutional lawyer who specialized in cases defending traditional Christian values. He is staunchly anti-abortion, an opponent of gay rights, and he voted against certification of the 2020 presidential election results.

While those positions might not play well in the socially moderate-to-liberal districts of the Hudson Valley and Long Island, Sheinkopf predicted Molinaro and other swing-district Republicans will work hard to shift voters’ attention to local concerns.

“They’re going to have to campaign on their commitment to local issues,” he said. “If they try to campaign on national issues, it will work against them.”


Stefanik the team player
Amid last month’s turmoil, there was some speculation that Stefanik, already the third-ranking member of the House GOP leadership behind the speaker, might make her own bid for the top job.

Gingrich, the former speaker who is now a political commentator, said on Fox News Sunday on Oct. 23 that he would prefer to see a woman elected speaker — “somebody like Elise Stefanik or Beth Van Duyne.”

But several political observers said Stefanik probably was wise not to seek the speakership at this time.

“She obviously didn’t have the votes,” said Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist. “She’s a good counter.”

“Maybe she’s just too smart to seek it,” said Catalfamo, the Republican strategist.
“She calculated that her time is not now,” said Dickinson, the Middlebury professor. “But I don’t think that she has given up on the speakership.

There also was speculation that Stefanik might move up in leadership if either Scalise or Emmer had been elected speaker. The two men now serve in the two leadership posts ahead of Stefanik, who is conference chairwoman.

Stefanik discounted the speculation.
“Now is not the time to be campaigning for other leadership positions,” she posted on Facebook on Oct. 11. “House Republicans must work to unite to elect the Speaker — and that is my focus as Conference Chair at this important time.”

Stefanik largely stayed out of the fray and instead coordinated the process in which the GOP conference selected its series of speaker nominees. She made the nominating speeches for both Jordan and Johnson on the House floor.

She also was spared a test of her loyalty to Trump when Emmer withdrew from the race, eliminating the need for Stefanik to cast a public vote on whether to support him for speaker.
Political experts said that, by playing the role of team player, Stefanik increased her clout among members of the Republican conference.

“She is a serious player, and it will benefit her constituents in some way, I am sure,” said Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist.

Dickinson, the Middlebury professor, said Stefanik’s fund-raising prowess will prove valuable to Johnson, who is regarded as a weak fund-raiser when compared with McCarthy.

As of Sept. 30, Stefanik’s campaign had raised $3.48 million so far this election cycle, of which she had disbursed more than $706,000 to other Republican candidates and campaign organizations, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

This does not include what she has raised through her E-PAC political action committee for women candidates and a separate political action committee she established jointly with the state Republican Committee to support Republican House candidates in swing districts.

By comparison, Johnson had raised $553,000 as of Sept. 30 for his own re-election campaign, of which he disbursed $100,000 to support other Republican candidates and campaigns.


Views of the new speaker
Although Johnson’s stances on issues generally appear at least as conservative as Jordan’s, several Republicans stressed what they see as his calmer, more civil tone.
“He does seem to have a kind of good will,” Catalfamo said.

When Johnson became a member of Congress in 2017, he circulated a “Commitment to Civility” that was signed by 53 of the 55 incoming House members from both parties.

“We literally made a contract with one another that we would raise the level of decorum around here and treat one another with dignity and respect, and even when we disagree, do it in an agreeable fashion,” Johnson said in an interview with C-SPAN at the time.

Former U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, was elected to the House in the same freshman class as Johnson.

“Mike has a very mediating personality, no hard edges,” said Faso, who lost his bid for a second term in 2018. “He is a principled conservative but someone who recognizes that our system requires compromise. As angry as I was over what the eight Republicans and all the Democrats did in deposing McCarthy, I’m very pleased that Mike is now speaker. He is a fine person.”
Democratic House members from the region are skeptical and point to Johnson’s role in trying to overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss.

“He’s a threat to our democracy,” Balint posted on her congressional office Facebook page.
Tonko posted on his Facebook page that The New York Times had described Johnson as “the most important architect of the Electoral College objections.”

“With every House Republican voting for Johnson, they will carry these regressive policies with them back to their districts,” Tonko wrote.

And Neal told MassLive.com that Johnson is “well outside the mainstream” on issues such as gun control and climate change.

Both Republican House members from the region, however, praised the new speaker.
“He’s a humble man, earned my trust, and will listen to the voices of those I represent,” Molinaro said in a statement.

“A friend to all and an enemy of none, Mike is strong and fair, and above all, Mike is kind,” Stefanik said, in her nominating speech on the House floor.