But if Republican losses break into the double digits, the three leaders could find it hard to hold on to their jobs, and rank and file members could throw their support behind a new generation of members — reformers who say their party should be making dramatic changes to prove to voters that it has learned the lessons that cost it the majority in 2006.
These newer members lack the votes now to overcome the wishes of more entrenched members of the Republican caucus. But a GOP bloodbath in November could change everything.
Among the young guns who could pick up the pieces:
Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor
The chief deputy whip passed on a chance in 2006 to challenge Blunt. Ever since, Republicans have seen him as the next lawmaker to lead their party. The question: Would he challenge Blunt or go all the way by taking on Boehner?
The answer probably depends on the outcome in November. Boehner’s support has wavered at times, but he remains the most powerful voice among Republicans in the House. On the other hand, Cantor might feel loyalty to Blunt because he elevated Cantor to the leadership, and their staffs remain closely aligned.
However, some of Cantor’s leadership colleagues saw in Cantor’s decision to sign a recent letter calling for a unilateral GOP earmark moratorium a symbolic betrayal and a sign that he was cozying up with conservatives to ensure their support in an internal fight.
Whatever his eventual decision, Cantor has done everything in his power to improve his stock over the years, raising prolific sums for GOP candidates — including $2 million in pledges for presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain — and increasing his profile among members and the media, frequently attending leadership press briefings and holding an annual dinner with congressional reporters.
Cantor has also contributed heavily to Republican candidates in special elections and other open seats.
Given the number of retirements, this group could be a powerful voting bloc on its own, provided the GOP retains the bulk of these seats.
Cantor’s job also gives him unrivaled access to colleagues from all parts of the party. He has even asked the notoriously independent Texas Rep. Ron Paul to back, or oppose, bills when Republicans have needed every vote they can get. This gives Cantor an established history with other members — as well as their cell phone numbers in case he mounts a race.
Florida Rep. Adam Putnam
The 33-year-old chairman of the Republican Conference became the youngest member of the elected leadership when he edged out three colleagues for the often-thankless post after the last election.
Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) at one point tapped Putnam to serve as his eyes and ears for rank-and-file members, and the Florida Republican inherited his top staff from the longest-serving GOP speaker in House history.
Putnam’s fundraising has improved, but his youth makes him an unlikely choice to lead the party. His outspoken criticism of past Republican abuses has also raised the occasional eyebrow.
Putnam can be impatient at times, but he is also stuck in the middle of a growing rift between agitators who believe partisan floor fights are the only way to regain the majority and those who think the party needs to offer substantive policy alternatives and wait for the Democrats to unravel on their own.
Putnam has become a very influential voice at the leadership table and seems to understand divides in the party as well as anyone.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan
The affable former congressional aide has no desigs on a leadership post and declined the chance to challenge a close ally, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), for the top Republican spot on the powerful Ways and Means Committee next year.
But the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee has become the go-to wonk for the GOP message machine on federal spending and entitlement reform. His outspoken conservative views have occasionally put him at odds with his leaders over budget process reform and earmarks. But he never talks out of school — he’s always careful not to leak details of closed-door meetings — making him a trustworthy ally for Republican colleagues.
He could be the policy voice if Democrats tackle health care reform, a tax overhaul or anything else that has an impact on the federal government’s bottom line.
California Rep. Kevin O. McCarthy
The protégé of former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, whose seat he now inhabits, McCarthy could make a run to replace Cole as chairman of the NRCC if Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who fell short of beating Cole in 2006, declines to run for that post.
While just a freshman, McCarthy has impressed members with his ability to raise money and his studied appreciation of their districts — he reads The Almanac of American Politics during his cross-country flights to and from his Bakersfield district and has gotten his hands dirty with election reform from a junior post on the Administration Committee.