Marlin Stutzman knows how to plant seeds.
When the Indiana Republican mounted his campaign for majority whip, it was such a long shot he didn't expect to win — at least not this time.
No one else really expected Stutzman to prevail in the three-way leadership contest, either. But he's looking years down the road, and is glad he took the gamble.
“Some people are afraid to lose. ... Sometimes you have to lose in order to build something for the future,” Stutzman told CQ Roll Call during an hourlong interview in his 7th floor Longworth office.
It’s a lesson he knows well, as a member who entered the House in November 2010 after losing the Indiana Republican Senate primary to Dan Coats in May of that year.
Stutzman, who calls himself “an overachieving farmer,” didn't see much downside to running and losing. This race was more about getting his name out there to let his colleagues know he’s interested in leadership.
His goal was to build relationships within the GOP conference. Stutzman said a lesson he learned from his scramble into leadership elections was that the conference is not as divided as many think, that the differences are more over strategy than policy.
So what does Stutzman want? The fourth-generation soybean, green bean and seed corn farmer doesn’t exactly seem to know.
For now, he seems content to lay down seeds for something, whether it be the Senate, the House whip position, the GOP conference chairmanship, or the head of the Republican Study Committee “next time around.”
He's also not ruling out a future chairmanship attempt to lead, say, the Agriculture Committee. In fact, he isn't ruling out much of anything. “I don’t close very many doors, and I don’t burn very many bridges,” Stutzman said.
Stutzman has a staunchly conservative voting record, but maintains good relationships in most corners of the conference. He's welcome in the most conservative circles, and was among the House Republicans who met with Sen. Ted Cruz in the basement of Tortilla Coast during the government shutdown , but moderates like him too.
Calling him "down-to-earth" and "a true gentleman," Tom Reed of New York told CQ Roll Call Stutzman gets along with just about everybody.
"He's certainly a conservative at his core, but the relationships he has across the conference are certainly a testament to his likability," Reed said.
Stutzman says he'd like the massive 2010 class to hold more influence. (He technically holds seniority over his classmates because he came in early after the election to replace his predecessor, Mark Souder, who resigned after an affair with one of his staffers.)
One role Stutzman is definitely looking to play is as a leader of the group, which he acknowledges hasn’t exactly redefined Washington. And he doesn’t know why such a large class doesn't hold more power in the conference.
“I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out," Stutzman said. The 2010 class recently began meeting at least once a month, and colleagues are looking to reassert the sway they wielded when they first came to Congress. “We could be a real powerful force if we wanted to," Stutzman said, noting that they still haven't exactly "lost our mojo."
Stutzman, 37, doesn't seem to mind the endeavor could take months or even years.
Not that he hasn't hit roadblocks. It wasn't so long ago that splitting with GOP leadership on a procedural vote related to the farm bill cost Stutzman his spot on the whip team. At the same time it gave him a chance to take a strong policy stand.
It was Stutzman who first advanced the idea of splitting the farm bill, penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed in August 2012 with Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham on the “unholy Washington alliance” of farm policy and food stamps. Nearly a year later, after Republicans were forced to find a new strategy on the measure following a surprise defeat on the House floor, leadership decided to split the bill , just as Stutzman had first recommended.
While that split didn’t survive a conference with the Senate, it “set the stage,” as Stutzman put it, for the next farm bill — where he believes food stamps and farm provisions will be irrevocably separated.
Decoupling the issues probably will lead to cuts in food stamp spending — perhaps one reason Stutzman has been reluctant to take credit for the idea — but he says it’s important Americans are able to see what they’re spending on issues like food stamps and agriculture. He admits voting against the rule for the original measure may not have been smart, given he was punished for it, but he "felt pretty strongly."
Stutzman thinks Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio is stronger coming out of the post-Cantor shakeup.
“I know there’s still people that would like to see a challenge with Boehner," Stutzman said. "But I just don’t know — you can’t beat somebody with nobody.”
For now, Stutzman seems content to build relationships and bide his time. He's not looking at being the next RSC chairman, and he's waiting patiently for his next opportunity.
"Nothing happens overnight," Stutzman said. "You just lay the groundwork and when the opportunity comes, if it's the right time, then good things can happen."
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