History Q & A: Did Party Members Defect from their Party’s Nominee for Speaker of the House in Past?

Democrats’ defection from Pelosi is historic

By Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza, Washington Post, 1-6-11

How divided are Democrats’ right now?

With 19 Democrats withholding support from Nancy Pelosi for House speaker on Wednesday, it represented the largest defection from a party’s speaker nominee in nearly a century.

The resistance in the Democratic Party to back now-former Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the ceremonial first vote of the 112th Congress registered higher than at any point since 1913, according to data from the Congressional Research Service.

That year, which happens to be the last year for which records are available, featured 23 votes for Republicans other than that party’s speaker nominee. Of the 19 Democrats who didn’t support Pelosi on Wednesday, 18 voted for other Democrats and one voted “present.”

In no other election in between do the numbers approach those two races (with an asterisk next to 1923, when 22 votes were cast for other Republicans on the first of nine ballots; by the ninth and final ballot, though, there were only two defectors).

Back in the 1920s, though, defections were much more common. Since 1945, only seven such protest votes have been lodged — total.

Of the 18 Democrats voting for other candidates yesterday, 11 voted for Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), two voted for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and five voted for other Democrats. The seven candidates receiving votes is more than any other race on record.

The data overall is spotty, with no good numbers on which members voted for whom for House speaker. But a comparison of the House speaker vote totals and a look at the partisan breakdown of the corresponding Congresses shows that defectors have been few and far between — and in most cases, those not voting for their party’s candidate simply didn’t vote (perhaps because they weren’t present).

Looking at those numbers, this appears to be the first time in at least 35 years that the number of Democrats not supporting their speaker candidate has been in double digits.

Twice over that span, the Democratic nominee for speaker failed to get the support of at least nine members of his party’s caucus. In 1981, there were 242 Democrats in the House and 233 votes for Speaker Tip O’Neill (D). Two years later, there were 269 Democrats in the House and 260 votes for O’Neill.

But in both 1981 and 1983, about 20 members of Congress didn’t register votes for either nominee — a number that suggests some of those withholding support were not protesting O’Neill, but merely that the members weren’t there to vote. With Pelosi, all but one of the 19 who didn’t vote for her cast ballots for someone else, and the lone non-voting member, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), has been a very vocal opponent of Pelosi….READ MORE

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