Republicans Worry They Could Lose the House—Before the Election

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When Republicans gained control of the House in November 2022, many in Washington wondered how they would be able to govern effectively with one of the slimmest majorities in history. Some Democrats even speculated if they might be able to take back the House before the term ended.

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Sixteen months later, as the Republican majority has shrunk even further, House Speaker Mike Johnson is admitting that possibility. He told Fox News on Monday that there is a slim chance he could lose the speakership to Democratic House leader Hakeem Jeffries in the next few weeks amid a wave of early retirements. “That’s a risk,” Johnson said of Democrats taking control of the House.

Already three Republican lawmakers have resigned from their posts mid-term—Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Bill Johnson, and Ken Buck. A fourth Republican, Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, is expected to step down in mid-April, bringing the party’s former nine-seat majority down to just 217-213 as Republicans lost a fifth seat after George Santos was expelled from the House.

The spate of early departures means that Republicans can soon only afford to lose one single vote when all lawmakers are present and voting, since 216 votes would constitute a majority. The shrinking Republican majority has raised concerns among some in the party about the potential for an unprecedented shift in power mid-Congress. “It’s very feasible that Democrats will be running the House before the election,” says Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former counsel to Sen. Rand Paul. “It’s time for Republicans to have a team meeting and say, ‘okay, guys, this majority is falling apart and if you keep acting like this, we’re not going to have a majority.’”

As Republicans grapple with the ongoing wave of early retirements, party leadership has little room for error as even a single additional departure could tip the scales in favor of the Democrats, which has never happened in the middle of a congressional term. Buck, who stepped down in March due to what he called growing dysfunction in Congress, has hinted that Republicans could see more resignations in the coming months if bitter divisions inside the GOP continue to escalate.

“Republicans would be smart to be worried,” says Matthew Green, a politics professor at Catholic University. “I don’t think the odds are very high that the Republicans will lose their majority, but it is a much bigger possibility now than it’s ever been. And I think it’s clear that the Republican leadership is worried about it.”

Green adds that if another Republican resigns or experiences an unexpected health crisis leading to their absence from voting, then Democrats could secure the majority before the November elections. It would be the first time such a shift has happened in the House mid-term, with the closest parallel coming in 1930 when Republicans lost their slim majority before the session began after several members died and Democrats won special elections to replace them. 

Complicating matters, some Republicans are already considering strategies to remove Johnson from his leadership position and trigger a vote for a new Speaker of the House. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Georgia Republican, filed a surprise motion to vacate the speakership on March 22 after Johnson had to rely on Democratic votes to pass a critical government funding package. The move could set up a risky leadership vote that would test the unity of the Republican conference. “If we vacated this speaker, we’d end up with a Democrat,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, warned immediately after Greene triggered the motion, adding that he believes some Republicans would vote for Jeffries. 

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The current tumult within the Republican Party has Democrats cautiously optimistic. While the tantalizing prospect of wresting control of the House mid-Congress appears unlikely, it is becoming a more plausible dream for Democrats. “Slowly but surely, House Republicans are catastrophically mismanaging their own majority out of existence,” New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat, said in December.

But even if Democrats do manage to gain control of the House, they would face some of the same challenges that plagued Republicans trying to govern with a razor-thin margin. “Democrats will have to ask themselves if they could have a majority, would they necessarily want one?” Green asks. “Is it worth it to go through the whole process of picking a new Speaker with maybe four months, at most, to be able to get something done? It’s not clear what the answer to that question is.”

In 2023, the Republican-led House passed only 27 bills that became law, despite holding a total of 724 votes. It was one of the least productive years in Congress in the last decade, shedding light on the ongoing challenges faced by Republicans—including their slim majority necessitating near-unanimous support for legislative progress, significant party fractures, and a far-right faction that has been a thorn in the side of party leadership.

“Republicans have completely mismanaged the majority, and it started when they kicked George Santos out of the caucus,” says Darling, the GOP strategist. Santos, who faces nearly two dozen federal criminal charges, was expelled from Congress in December, with 105 Republicans voting for his removal. Democrat Tom Suozzi won his seat in a special election in February. “I understand why they did it, but ultimately they were giving away a seat that put them a little bit closer to giving away the majority.”