As Rep. Raúl R. Labrador tries to mount a serious challenge to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s increasingly solid bid to become majority leader, and as Reps. Peter Roskam and Marlin Stutzman try to wrest control of the whip race from Rep. Steve Scalise, the challengers are running up against a critical roadblock: time.
Lawmakers were back at work in the Capitol Tuesday, days — really, just hours — ahead of Thursday's election to replace Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and, if need be, to fill McCarthy's whip role. McCarthy is heavily favored to beat Labrador, his conservative challenger from Idaho, but both sides are continuing the fight — Labrador to make up for lost ground, McCarthy to ensure a strong vote.
With the California Republican's stranglehold over the position looking just as firm as it did last week, before Labrador announced his candidacy, attention is turning to the whip race.
A source close to the Scalise operation told CQ Roll Call the Louisiana Republican is “right where he needs to be.”
“He’s got his foot on the gas and he doesn’t intend to pick it up until Thursday,” the source said Tuesday.
But Roskam insists he’s making ground.
The Illinois Republican spent the day meeting face-to-face with members and calling others on the phone. His strategy is to focus on undecided members, both those he thinks he can sway on a first ballot and, if it comes to it, on a second ballot, according to a source close to the campaign.
Roskam sent a letter to the conference over the weekend pledging to choose a chief deputy whip from a red state, a direct response to the feeling among many members that there should be more conservative representation in leadership. The Roskam source said members have been responding well to that pledge.
Trailing both Scalise and Roskam is Stutzman, a crafty conservative from Indiana in his second-term.
Stutzman’s votes could prevent Scalise or Roskam from winning a majority on the first ballot, meaning he could be in a position to help steer his votes in a critical direction — much like John Shadegg did in 2006 to help John A. Boehner defeat Roy Blunt in a race to become majority leader.
But Stutzman insists he’s focused on winning, not cutting deals.
Stutzman spoke with CQ Roll Call on Tuesday afternoon, and while he acknowledged that he’s in third place if you just look at "the hard numbers,” he thinks he has a shot to make it to a second ballot and, consequently, make it interesting.
“There’s a shot,” Stutzman said. “It can be narrow, but there’s enough undecided.”
Many have speculated that Stutzman is simply running to cut a deal for the chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee, which Scalise currently heads. But on Tuesday, Stutzman didn’t seem all that interested in that position, though he admitted he was gunning to lead the RSC before Tom Graves, R-Ga., got in the race against Scalise last year.
“Ever since then, it hasn’t been something that I’ve felt in my gut,” Stutzman said Tuesday. But he sees the open leadership races as an opportunity to bring changes to the GOP. “We need a fresh slate,” he said, “showing the American people that we’re listening to them.”
While Roskam has said he would name a chief deputy whip from a red state if he's picked — many say the position is slated for freshman Richard Hudson of North Carolina — Scalise has yet to indicate whom he would pick for chief deputy whip.
The source familiar with the Louisiana Republican's operation said that would be a discussion for after the election, calling the appointment of a chief deputy whip “not a political box to check.”
Still, if Washington insiders insist the real action in Thursday’s leadership elections is the whip race, the insiders’ insiders, such as Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, a politically plugged-in Republican from North Carolina, see the appointment of a chief deputy whip as “the big parlor game.”
McHenry, who is backing Scalise, told CQ Roll Call that having yet to name a chief deputy whip was a “fantastic card to play."
Whether Scalise can get 117 votes on Thursday without having to play that ace up his sleeve is the question. But plenty of names have been floated as potential Scalise picks, including Aaron Schock of Illinois, intended to eat into Roskam’s votes from his home state and the Midwest; Ann Wagner of Missouri, a tenacious freshman who is as naturally competitive as anyone in Congress; Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, a sociable Southerner who has good relationships throughout the conference and was weighing his own bid for whip; and McHenry himself.
Either way, all the whip candidates were slated to address the Pennsylvania delegation — a 13-strong group of Republicans that would surely boost any candidacy — on Tuesday night.
“It always makes the delegation stronger if we’re able to hang together,” said Bill Shuster, R-Pa. “But we’ve got different people in different parts of the state. Who knows?”
Also slated to make his pitch to the Pennsylvania delegation was Labrador, who is trying to shift the mood on Capitol Hill that McCarthy’s bid to be majority leader is a fait accompli. Keystone State lawmakers said the group would overwhelmingly vote for McCarthy, but some would support Labrador. The whip race, meanwhile, will likely split the delegation.
McCarthy, for his part, is content to work behind the scenes and make it seem as if there is no real contest — though he knows the vote tally is an important endorsement for himself and leadership.
McCarthy projected a cool confidence entering a leadership meeting on Tuesday. Asked or his pitch to members, he said simply, "We don't pitch. Just talk to them."