WASHINGTON – The last best hope for the tea party to win a House leadership post after the stunning primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor is the race for majority whip, the House's third-ranking position.
But as House Republicans return to Washington today, that contest risks becoming another lost opportunity for the conservatives who have called Cantor's loss a warning shot to the establishment.
Three Republicans – Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Indiana's Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd – spent the weekend campaigning to succeed Rep. Kevin McCarthy, of California as majority whip should he win Thursday's election to replace Cantor – an election McCarthy has all but clinched in recent days. The trio's scrambling has brought into focus a roaring debate over how far to the right the House GOP should move in the wake of Cantor's fall and whether more geographical balance is needed in the leadership.
The flurry of phone calls and jockeying has also led a growing number of House Republicans to worry that the GOP risks becoming consumed by ideological conflict, signaling to the electorate that the party is divided as the midterm elections approach.
“We've got to get these races behind us and start to look like a governing party,” said Rep. Devin Nunes of California, an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio. “There are people in our conference looking to inflict political pain, but most of us want to get back to work.”
Scalise has rapidly become the whip competition's front-runner, although each camp's internal counts are fluid and subjective. The charismatic congressman has won the backing of Reps. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, a popular conservative, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the Republican Conference chair and the party's highest-ranking woman in Congress. Friday night, Scalise and his aides were upbeat as they worked in his cramped office in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, saying he has locked up more than 100 votes in a race that can be won with 117 – 51 percent of the 233-member House GOP.
Roskam, the mild-mannered chief deputy whip and Scalise's main rival, has had difficulty countering Scalise's pitch that with McCarthy and Boehner set to hold the two senior positions, it is critical that a staunch Southern conservative emerge Thursday as holder of the third leadership slot. Roskam spent the weekend at his west Chicago district office, holding conference calls with his deputies and issuing a letter promising that if he wins, he will tap a red-state conservative as his deputy.
“At this tumultuous time for our conference, I think it is more important to have the skills necessary to line up votes than to check a geographical box,” Roskam wrote.
But with a few days left until House Republicans gather to vote by secret ballot, Roskam's allies believe that the little-known Stutzman could give them an opening to make up ground. Stutzman, a conservative who is friendly with right-wing advocates, is drawing support from lawmakers who have clashed with Scalise during Scalise's tenure as chairman of the Republican Study Committee and who are wary of his cozy relations with McCarthy. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a tea party leader, is with Stutzman.
Speaking Sunday by phone, Stutzman said that he had “50 votes, solid” behind him and that he would not drop out of the race before the vote, to be held a day after a closed-door forum Wednesday morning in the Capitol's basement, where leadership candidates will address their colleagues.
“I wasn't planning on running for whip, but all of a sudden the status quo changed in a big way that none of us saw coming,” Stutzman said.
Winning the support of Stutzman and his backers could be critical to Scalise or Roskam if Stutzman does not make a second ballot. Stutzman would not say where he is leaning Sunday and instead said that he is “running to win and doing better than expected.”
If Roskam is victorious – perhaps by splitting the votes of Scalise and Stutzman, who are both aligned with the House's right flank – it would leave the upper echelon of the House GOP leadership without a representative from the tea party or a conservative state, in spite of an outburst of conservative energy last week.
Aware of the sensitive nature of the whip race, Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy have all declined to endorse a candidate, though Roskam is closest to them politically, and aides predict that Thursday's vote could necessitate multiple ballots.
McCarthy, touting himself as Cantor's natural successor, seems poised to benefit most from the disorder and privately told colleagues over the weekend that he has more than enough votes to ascend to be second in command to Boehner.
Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, a hard-charging sophomore, announced Friday that he would make a bid for majority leader, but with little organization and little time, his insurgent candidacy is considered an unviable expression of frustration about the rise of McCarthy, who supports giving legal status to undocumented immigrants and whose easygoing style has been derided by some conservatives.
Conservative advocacy groups, still celebrating Cantor's loss and mulling a path forward, spent Sunday urging activists to get behind Labrador.
But they acknowledged that their chances of beating McCarthy are small, considering the Californian's alliances across the caucus and his backing from powerful committee chairmen.
“Since Congress is a place where personal relationships rule, we've decided to largely stay out of the leadership races,” said Sal Russo, an adviser to the Tea Party Express. “Unless you're in the club, it's hard to win the inside game.”
FreedomWorks, which organizes grass-roots conservatives, launched a Web campaign to boost Labrador dubbed “Majority Raul,” with several conservative talk-radio hosts cheering it on, but it had yet to gain traction.
Labrador, distracted by state politics, has found it hard to generate enthusiasm for his eleventh-hour entry, and his case for being an able manager of the House floor was dealt a blow Saturday when he presided over Idaho's state GOP convention and saw it fall into disarray amid infighting and procedural challenges.
“This is as low as the party can go,” a weary Labrador told the Associated Press. “We have hit bottom.”
Labrador's base is a group called the Liberty Caucus, comprising tea party conservatives and libertarians, such as Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who have long grumbled about the centrist drift of GOP officials.
Most Republicans said the power struggle is reflective of the tumult within the GOP and unique for its timing, but in line with how leadership races have played out in House Republican politics over the years.
“Given the shock caused by Cantor's loss, you're bound to have some turmoil,” said John Feehery, a onetime adviser to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert “But there's always rumors and stuff happening, as well as misinformation.”