Updated 3:58 p.m. | Two high-profile GOP leadership races have just ended, but a new one's just getting started.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was elected on June 19 to ascend to the majority whip's office on Aug. 1, which means the Republican Study Committee will have an opening for a new chairman — and ambitious candidates hoping to emerge as the House’s next conservative leader are ready to start campaigning. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina was the first member to announce his candidacy, focusing his efforts on securing support for a bid to run the RSC instead of trying to run for majority leader or whip.
Soon after, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert announced his interest, too.
Should Maryland's Andy Harris win, he would be the first chairman in the past 15 years to hail from a state that reliably votes Democratic in presidential elections.
Wyoming's Cynthia M. Lummis would be the first woman to lead the RSC since Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina held the reins in 2003.
Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona was asked to run, but declined, telling CQ Roll Call he'd rather back Harris for the job.
Rep. Tom Graves, who ran for and lost the RSC chairmanship at the end of the previous Congress, won't run again this year, his spokesman confirmed, perhaps because the Georgia lawmaker is in line to receive a coveted chairmanship on an appropriations subcommittee, an indication Graves has worked his way back into leadership's good graces.
And Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman, fresh off his defeat in the whip race against Scalise, also said he’s holding off on launching another leadership campaign — for now.
Calling itself “an independent research arm for House Republicans,” the RSC is open to any GOP lawmakers who want to work collectively to push conservative social and economic policy through the chamber. Today, the RSC chairman has the ears of 172 dues-paying members — more than three-quarters of the House Republican Conference. The chairman is the spokesperson for a faction on which leadership often depends to pass important legislation on the floor.
That level of influence is compounded by the privilege of having a full-time staff to oversee the group’s operations. The RSC has an executive director, general counsel and a handful of policy advisers and aides, along with a director of conservative coalitions and state outreach and a director of operations and member services.
The race to lead the organization occurs, by default, every two years, with RSC bylaws limiting chairmen to just one term or the length of one Congress.
A source familiar with the official rules explained that Scalise's successor during the final months of this Congress would have the opportunity to run again in November for a full term. RSC members and the group's founders will huddle Wednesday to discuss the logistics for naming that successor.
Will there be a special election? An appointed placeholder? The bylaws themselves might have to be rewritten to more fully instruct members on how to select an interim chairman. However that interim chairman is installed, his or her rule would be significantly truncated. In that sense, it's not so different from the situation in which Scalise will find himself later this fall, forced to fight a second time in five months to keep his newly won whip title.
This leadership post could now be seen as even more plum, given it was such a springboard for Scalise to secure the No. 3 slot in House GOP leadership. His rise in the ranks is a testament to the opportunities afforded to an RSC chairman to strengthen relationships and show leadership potential.
Scalise almost didn’t make it this far: At the end of 2012, he failed to win the RSC founders’ endorsement, which went instead to Graves. It meant Scalise had to shore up the necessary signatures in order to run against the Georgia lawmaker and then make a powerful case for his own conservative bona fides. The last member to pull off such an upset was Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who ended up running the RSC from 2007 to 2008.
Members now looking to succeed Scalise could have a different experience campaigning for the slot, with former RSC Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio recently telling CQ Roll Call that the founders are considering a revision to the bylaws to give conference members more power in the selection process.
Rather than endorsing a single candidate and forcing other members to launch underdog campaigns, they could instead say, “'These five guys or ladies are all good. You guys pick,’” Jordan said. “It's kind of more democratic.”
Salmon confirmed he has heard similar rumblings, and the subject is also due to come up at Wednesday's RSC meeting.
Though every member looking to run the RSC is going to have to prove his or her ideological purity, the rules change to which Jordan alluded could help lawmakers avoid a prickly fight over who’s the most conservative. At the same time, it could also mean a free-for-all, and an election date has not even been set.
Conservative credentials also are not easy to quantify.
Three lawmakers who aren't running for RSC chairman would have had an easy time making pitches. Stutzman gained a solid reputation among those on the right for championing the House’s decision to split the 2013 farm bill into separate farm and nutrition titles, while Graves was lauded in the days before the government shutdown for proposing a short-term spending bill that zeroed out funding for the 2010 health care law, and Salmon was at one time pushing for a House Republican Conference rules change to codify the "Hastert Rule .
The committed contenders with less tangible track records of conservative advocacy might have to rely on scorecards from outside groups, such as Heritage Action, to bolster their arguments.
Gohmert has the highest marks on the the Heritage Action scorecard — 91 percent — though he is considered a long shot for the job to replace Scalise, who has an 81 percent rating and even at that threshold had to fight back criticism that he wasn't conservative enough. Mulvaney has an 82 percent rating, Harris has an 80 percent and Lummis comes in at 69 percent.
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.