How Majority Parties Can Lose Leadership Positions in the Legislative 'Game of Thrones'

After winning majorities last fall, Republicans managed to lose leadership elections in New Hampshire and Washington state.
by | January 19, 2015
The New Hampshire State House in Concord. Wikimedia Commons/ AlexiusHoratius

Legislators nearly always vote with their parties. But some will still break ranks, even on party-defining votes.

In both New Hampshire and Washington State, a minority group of Republicans joined with Democrats to elect leaders who were far from the first choice of their party.

The more contentious of the two fights took place in the New Hampshire House. After the GOP regained the majority last November, former Speaker Bill O’Brien was narrowly chosen by his fellow Republicans to return to the job.

Normally, that’s good enough. But some Republicans -- the exact number isn’t publicly known -- sided with Democrats to choose another Republican for the job, Shawn Jasper.

By all accounts, the split was over personality, rather than ideology.

“When O’Brien was speaker, he really alienated a lot of people within his own party -- and certainly Democrats -- through his high-handed tactics as speaker,” said Andrew Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

This sort of thing is familar in New Hampshire. Cross-party alliances have picked top leaders five other times over the past 40 years in the two chambers.

What’s different is O’Brien’s reaction. He’s refused to accept the results and has named a shadow leadership team that has set up shop outside the statehouse.

“It is certainly unusual for the loser in such a fight to continue the fight,” said Raymond Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “What’s also unusual is the rampage that Bill O’Brien and some of his supporters on a very personal level are on, going after Speaker Jasper.”

It’s made for good theater. Jasper has punished some of O’Brien’s allies by depriving them of committee assignments or even choice seats on the House floor.

The O’Brien faction continues to fight back, launching attacks on Jasper through the press and social media. O'Brien's people complain that Jasper will be insufficiently vigorous in promoting a conservative agenda, accusing him of caving on issues such as right-to-work legislation that Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan would likely veto.

It’s not clear how long they can keep it up, suggests Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

“Jasper is not as conservative as Bill O’Brien, but he’s still conservative. He’s not seen as a moderate or a liberal Republican,” Scala said. “I’m curious what kind of policy distinctions or lines in the sand Bill O’Brien and company can draw from across the street.”

It’s sometimes been the case that cross-party leadership outcomes lead to bipartisan deals on policy. But that doesn’t seem likely in New Hampshire this year.

“The speaker is as conservative as the previous speaker,” said Jim Rivers, director of communications for the New Hampshire House. “Everyone has an ‘R’ after their names. As we get into the session, I think we’re all on the same page on our core issues.”

For their part, Democrats are likely to stick with their own program and not go along with things Jasper might want. “Democrats were all too eager to stick it to O’Brien,” said Smith, the pollster. “Now that that’s done, policy is a different thing.”

Matters may be more fluid in Washington state. There, Republicans have just a one-seat majority in the Senate, so every vote matters.

The GOP lost a big one early on In a surprise move, Democrats joined with Pam Roach and one other Republican to give Roach the position of president pro tempore.

The post is considered largely ceremonial, but Roach gets a seat on the Rules Committee and may have some say over floor action.

Democrats didn’t want to return Tim Sheldon to the job. He’s a Democrat, but he joined with the GOP to give Republicans effective control over the chamber during the last session.

That led to the odd circumstance where most Republicans were voting for a Democrat, while all Democrats voted for a Republican. But, after all, if you can’t beat the majority, after all, you might as well do your best to undermine it.

Roach, who has sometimes been at odds with her own party, was happy to take the job.

“Game of thrones,” tweeted Michael Baumgartner, a Republican state senator. “If Pam was born Afghan, she’d be in charge of a couple of provinces now.”