What a smaller Republican House majority could mean for Paul Ryan

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on

To gain a majority in the House—as some have speculated could happen if there is a highly unpopular Republican at the top of the ballot in November—Democrats would need a net gain of 30 seats. That’s a tall order. But the party of the winning presidential candidate has gained seats in the House in 12 of the 17 presidential elections since 1946, and 56 House seats (42 held by Republicans) are considered “competitive” by the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

So if a Democrat is elected president and the GOP has a smaller House majority in the next Congress, what might this mean for Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)? Would he continue trying to rely on “regular order” and soliciting input from rank-and-file Republicans? Political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson recently suggested that “for Republicans in and outside government, it will be a time not for facing up to hard truths but for doubling down on hardball tactics.”

A smaller majority would exacerbate challenges that Mr. Ryan has faced as speaker, partly because the Republicans most likely to lose are, in many cases, ones who sided with the party leadership on “must-pass” measures last year that were unpopular with more conservative members. High-profile examples include the March legislation funding the Department of Homeland Securitythe continuing resolution that prevented a government shutdown in September, and the October budget deal. In each instance, the GOP leadership had to rely on Democratic votes for passage. Vulnerable Republicans—perhaps because they were concerned about the electoral consequences of shutting down part or all of the federal government, or breaching the debt ceiling—delivered roughly a third of the GOP votes in favor (38% on the homeland security bill35% on the continuing resolution, and 30% on the budget deal). Each of these bills would have passed without their support. But having a smaller caucus could diminish Mr. Ryan’s negotiating position: Newly elected Democrats may demand more concessions for their support than the Republicans they replaced.

The conservative wing of the GOP could continue to present its own challenges. With 28 seats currently held by Republicans coming open (11 of which are considered in play), the next House GOP caucus will have new faces whatever happens to the most vulnerable Republicans in November. Freshmen Republicans from safely GOP districts may cooperate with their party leadership, but the House Freedom Caucus is targeting the open-seat races to expand its numbers. These districts are fertile ground for electing solidly conservative legislators. Their current representatives, on average, are more conservative than the average Republican running for re-election from a reliably GOP district, according to the DW-Nominate scale. All of the “safe” open-seat districts were won by Mitt Romney in 2012, and Cook’s Partisan Voting Index measure suggests that Republicans run reliably better in these districts than in the nation as whole. A larger Freedom Caucus could present stiffer challenges when the debt limit comes up again in March 2017.

Among the promises the Freedom Caucus sought before Mr. Ryan became speaker was that he would not bring to the House floor any bills opposed by a majority of the majority party. Strict adherence to such a norm can have negative electoral consequencesresearch has shown. If a Democrat wins the White House in November, the GOP, as the opposition party, would be poised to pick up seats in the 2018 midterms. But a smaller, more cohesively conservative House majority might make it more difficult for Republicans to gain seats in 2018, particularly if it doubles down on tactics voters consider obstructionist.

Gaining enough seats for a majority is a high hurdle for Democrats this fall. Still, Republicans would face their own problems with a smaller GOP majority, particularly one that is more willing to take on the House leadership.