GOP Reps. Mark Walker of North Carolina and Andy Harris of Maryland have both officially launched bids to become the next chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus of the House.
Founded in 1973, the RSC has evolved into the GOP's largest faction. Its membership includes more than 170 of the 246 Republican members of the House, including some members that are also part of the moderate Tuesday Group and the anti-establishment House Freedom Caucus.
The committee elects a new chairman each Congress. The vote to decide on a successor to current Chairman Bill Flores of Texas will take place on Nov. 17. All RSC members who've paid their dues for the coming 115th Congress can vote, except for incoming freshmen.
Flores said that while other members flirted with the idea of running, Walker and Harris are the only two expected candidates.
Harris, a member of both the RSC and the Freedom Caucus, said he wants to unify the conservative factions of the House. He launched a bid against Flores in 2014, but dropped out after his wife died.
"We have to define what conservatism is in Washington and we need a vehicle for that," Harris said in an interview Wednesday. "And I think the Republican Study Committee, functioning properly, would be the ideal vehicle for that."
Walker, a freshman, said he's running to empower members and help ensure their voices are being heard.
"We want to make sure that some of the outside groups — well-meaning — that they’re not overshadowing what our job, what our responsibility is," he said in an interview Tuesday.
The first-term lawmaker said he has developed relationships across the GOP conference that create a viable opportunity for him to win.
"I don’t know how long you can maintain this in Washington, but we’ve been able to build genuine relationships from the Freedom Caucus to [the] Tuesday Group," he said. "Genuine, I feel like, in the sense that we care about where each other [is] in life, family, those kinds of things. Maybe that counts for something still up here. We’ll find out."
Walker, who announced his bid on Sept. 6, has already racked up a handful of endorsements. Harris, who only announced his run on Wednesday, will likely get most of the Freedom Caucus members who are also part of the RSC to back him. Both Harris and Walker are members of the RSC's Steering Committee, the panel that decides when the caucus should take an official position on legislation.
Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks had considered running for RSC chairman but decided to back off when Harris jumped in.
"These are both great men and I would have been the weakest among them," he told Roll Call Tuesday, before Harris had announced his run. "But I had concluded in my mind recently … if Andy gets in the race, then I am going to step back and support him."
Harris, who is serving his third term in Congress, said he plans to meet with all the members of the RSC to impress upon them "the importance of having someone at the helm with experience, a member of the team who has a vision for advancing conservative principles and reunifying the wing of the conservative side of the party."
Harris said the most prominent issues are addressing the federal deficit, overregulation and anti-competiveness of the tax code, as well as re-establishing military pre-eminence and restoring and preserving social conservative principles.
"Part of what we need to do is we need to unify around conservative viewpoints," he said. "I hope that most of the members of the RSC are willing to do that over the next term."
Walker, too, wants to advocate conservative principles but suggested Republicans need to do a better job.
"Is it just about winning the argument or is it about making a difference?" he said. "I think the next wave of the generation of Republicans, we’ve got to make sure that we’re disciplined in how we share our message to all communities. … It’s about being effective — when you can look back, you can see some of the things and the benchmarks of what you’ve accomplished."
Asked about his ability to lead a large, diverse group like the RSC, Walker touts his experience as a pastor leading a congregation with members from different backgrounds and socio-economic statuses.
"When you’re laying out an objective, you’re helping to design that path but also helping people to get behind that vision of whatever it is that you’ve laid out," he said. "And I think that’s something that hopefully comes a little bit more natural in our leadership capabilities."
Harris said that despite being a large group, the RSC can be more effective if it comes up with basic agreements about conservative issues that should form the basis of its membership.
"One of the impetuses behind the starting of the Freedom Caucus and membership is the frustration that the Republican Study Committee has not been as effective as it could be in promoting conservative principles and ideas," he said. "I think that’s something that can be dealt with. There are ways to do it that I’ll be discussing with the membership that will reunify the conservatives in the House. … It will make the conference run better. It will make leadership run better. It will be better."