GOP Leadership Races Heat Up -- and Speed Up
House Speaker John Boehner’s surprise announcement Friday that he will resign from Congress at the end of October sent shock waves through Capitol Hill and set off a mad dash not only to replace him, but to fill the entire slate of Republican leadership positions.
When it comes to such races, it pays to move quickly. With Boehner’s announcement barely in the rearview mirror, several lawmakers spent the weekend furiously making phone calls to their colleagues, taking stock and seeking to shore up support either to enter, or move up in, the leadership ranks.
Current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who formally announced his candidacy for speaker Monday afternoon, appears to have the inside track to replace Boehner. If that happens, the entire GOP leadership could change in the middle of a tumultuous year for Republicans in the House. All members of the conference will meet Tuesday evening to discuss how they want to move forward, a meeting requested by Rep. Peter Roskam, whose name has been floated as a potential leadership candidate but who seems more concerned with shaping the direction of the party. No staff members will be present at the meeting to allow for a more frank discussion.
Here’s a look at how the internal races are shaping up.
Speaker of the House
McCarthy, the energetic fifth-term California lawmaker, was mum on his plans over the weekend as he worked the phones, talking to every GOP colleague. On Monday afternoon, once that process was complete, he sent an email to those colleagues announcing what had already been all but certain: that he would run for speaker.
“Our conference has been through a lot together,” McCarthy said. “We are a part of the largest Republican majority since 1928. We have made real progress towards shrinking an overgrown federal government and reforming our broken entitlement system. But our work is far from done. We can’t ignore the differences that exist, but we can and must heal the divisions in our conference with work, time, and trust.”
At this point, it appears McCarthy’s path to the top spot is almost entirely clear. He does face a challenge from Rep. Daniel Webster, who previously ran against Boehner at the beginning of the year, garnering 12 votes. But several other high-profile members, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, have declined to seek leadership positions. McCarthy will need to secure 218 Republican votes in the House floor to win the job, meaning he can only afford to lose about 30 colleagues’ votes and still prevail.
If he does manage to win the election, however, McCarthy will have to immediately contend with the same difficulties Boehner faced during his tenure. Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican, said on MSNBC Monday he thinks McCarthy is in the “strongest position” to become speaker, but that he’ll face a number of fiscal issues and deadlines in his first few months that will test his support from conservatives, including raising the debt ceiling, funding the government and passing a transportation bill.
“Clearly, Kevin McCarthy is going to have to face the same issues that faced John Boehner,” Dent said. “I feel sorry for the next speaker, because the people who are trying to take down John Boehner will try to frag the next guy. So Kevin McCarthy is in a tough spot.”
McCarthy might actually be in a slightly better position than Boehner to handle the challenges. The California lawmaker ran recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010, and thus helped elect many of the members who became problematic for Boehner. He spoke about those problems, and the sentiment among many conservatives that congressional leaders weren’t representing their views, in his email to colleagues.
“I am also sensitive to what is happening outside of the Beltway,” McCarthy said. “I want us to be much closer to the people we represent, and I want them to once again feel like this is their government, they are in charge, and we are here to serve them. If elected Speaker, I promise you that we will have the courage to lead the fight for our conservative principles and make our case to the American people. But we will also have the wisdom to listen to our constituents and each other so that we always move forward together.”
If McCarthy does become speaker after little more than a year in his current position, it’ll set off a barn-burner of a race to replace him as the majority leader, with candidates arising from both inside and outside the current leadership team. Steve Scalise, now the whip, and Rep. Tom Price, chairman of the House Budget Committee, are both actively seeking the job.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the Republican conference, the No. 4 leadership position, had been seeking support to be the majority leader. Early Monday afternoon, a GOP aide told RCP that McMorris Rodgers had been in contact with more than 200 fellow lawmakers, laying out her rationale for the move up.
Later Monday evening, however, Politico reported that McMorris Rodgers was not going to run for majority leader, instead choosing to remain in her current position. “The best way right now for me to empower my colleagues through positive change is to remain Conference Chair,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement, according to Politico.
Price got a momentum boost Monday afternoon with endorsements from two of his fellow committee chairmen, Hensarling and Ryan. In a statement, Ryan called Price “a committed conservative and a good friend” and said he “has the knowledge and skills needed to be an effective Majority Leader.”
Later Monday evening, Price officially announced his candidacy via an email to his colleagues. “The hurdles that inevitably lay ahead will require effective and capable leaders,” he wrote. “It will require new thinking and a change from the status quo. And it must advance the cause of a smaller, more limited, more accountable government by allowing everyone’s voice to be included. The unique strengths and ideas that each of you bring from your communities all across the country deserve to be heard, and I will listen.”
For Scalise, the path to majority leader would likely be similar to the path that led him to the whip role last August: run on his ability to bridge the gap between leadership and House conservatives. Scalise previously chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee, which helped him consolidate enough support to win his current position.
A source close to Scalise told RCP the Louisiana Republican had a productive weekend moving members into the “yes” column. He held a call with lawmakers who were whipping support on his behalf Sunday night, thanking them for the effort. Those lawmakers, according to the source, heard “support and praise based on his strong relationships with members in all parts of the conference, his ability to pull the conference together to address big issues, his open-door policy of listening to members’ ideas and concerns, and his ability to identify and deliver on members’ priorities.”
Scalise has had some stumbles since taking the No. 3 job – including when leadership had to pull an anti-abortion bill and an education reform bill from the floor because they didn’t have the votes to pass them. He has had big wins too, including passing new fast-track trade rules and a budget earlier this year. Scalise also faced personal political issues earlier this year when it was revealed that he had spoken to a white supremacist group in 2002, something he has since apologized for.
If McCarthy wins the speakership and Scalise becomes majority leader, the domino effect will open up Scalise’s current position as the chief vote counter in the conference. The current chief deputy whip, Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, is poised to move up to the position, but he may face stiff competition from a number of other Republicans.
Second-term Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin and third-term Florida Rep. Dennis Ross are likely to run for the position as well. Fellow Texas representatives have also floated rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions’ name for a potential leadership position, and a source close to Sessions’ office confirmed that if he were to run for a spot, it would be as whip. The source said he’s been having ongoing conversations with lawmakers about the direction of the party and the next leadership team.
While most of the campaigning for leadership positions has been done by phone and behind closed doors within the conference, Ross released a statement Monday morning outlining a “Compact With Congress” with five pledges if he gains a leadership post, including operating under regular order and bringing to the floor within 90 days bills on an alternative to Obamacare, immigration reform starting with border security, and tax reform -- though the majority whip does not set the floor schedule.
Many of these issues and more will be discussed when all GOP members meet Tuesday evening in the Capitol, without aides present, to air out their concerns. After that meeting, the field for leadership may shrink or expand, but one thing seems clear with these internal races: Those who move fast tend to prevail and those who hesitate are lost.