House Freedom Caucus founder Jim Jordan may not be ready to announce a bid to be the next speaker, but several grass-roots conservative groups have begun campaigning on his behalf.
The Ohio Republican has said he would consider running for speaker when there’s a race. Speaker Paul D. Ryan is planning to serve through the remainder of his term and then retire. And a Republican speaker’s race won’t happen if the party doesn’t hold on to their House majority in the midterms.
A Jordan speaker candidacy would be a foil to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has support from Ryan and the current GOP leadership team.
For many of the groups backing Jordan, blocking McCarthy’s ascension is part of the goal. They’d also like to see Jordan hold the speaker’s gavel but acknowledged that it will be an uphill battle for him to get the 218 votes needed to be elected speaker on the House floor.
“We are not under any illusions that this is easy,” said Noah Wall, vice president of advocacy for FreedomWorks. “This is a long process. And I think the path to victory is making this a campaign issue.”
FreedomWorks is just one of several conservative organizations mobilizing their network of grass-roots supporters to both push Jordan to run for speaker and urge his colleagues to vote for him. The group describes itself as “6 million Americans who are passionate about promoting free markets and individual liberty.”
Other conservative groups backing Jordan include Tea Party Patriots, the Senate Conservatives Fund, ForAmerica, Gun Owners of America and the American Family Association.
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Most of the groups are making the speaker’s race a political issue by asking candidates they’re considering endorsing who they intend to support. Those with political action committees are planning to ask the same question before donating money.
The conservative grass roots are publicizing the speaker’s race in a way that members are unwilling to. Few House Republicans have openly talked about who they’d support for speaker — or minority leader should their party lose its majority in November — but members acknowledge there’s some jockeying already underway.
“Leadership wants it to be a behind-the-scenes shadow campaign because they win that,” Wall said. “The only way you win this is if you involve the American people in this process.”
That’s what the conservative groups are trying to do, give regular people a say in the speaker’s race by having them lobby their representatives who will get to cast the votes.
“This is America’s speaker. This isn’t just to be members of Congress’ speaker of the House,” said Rob Chambers, vice president for American Family Association Action. “The selection of the speaker does not need to take place behind closed doors.”
Chambers sent an alert to the group’s 1.2 million email supporters urging them to contact their congressman about the speaker’s race. The alert made the case for supporting Jordan over McCarthy or House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, arguing that having a conservative candidate for speaker “would encourage voter turnout in the 2018 mid-term elections to elect more conservatives to Congress.”
FreedomWorks also believes the possibility of a conservative speaker would boost election turnout among its supporters.
“It’s our goal to give them something to support in the midterms that’s really in addition to tax reform,” Wall said.
If their theory proves correct, Wall said that will help drive support among members outside of the Freedom Caucus for a Speaker Jordan — and not just incumbents.
“There’s going to be about 54 new members of the House next year; 37 of those are in seats currently held by Republicans,” Wall said.
Incoming freshman get to vote in the intraparty leadership elections the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus typically hold in late November, as well as the speaker’s election on the House floor on the opening day of the new Congress in January.
In campaigns, candidates will likely be asked direct questions about whether they support the current leadership team. And the conservative groups are not just highlighting their support for Jordan, but their opposition to McCarthy — and for some, their opposition to Scalise.
“Scalise would certainly be preferable to McCarthy, but Jordan has done the right thing consistently, so obviously he is our guy,” said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America.
Gun Owners for America is upset with the current leadership team because they promised not to let a background check measure move through Congress without concealed carry reciprocity. But the former moved without the latter and was signed into law as part of the omnibus.
“McCarthy and Ryan are liars. They stabbed us in the back,” Hammond said. He was less upset with Scalise, citing the whip’s public attempt to sway the president not to take any action without including concealed carry reciprocity.
Leadership races don’t often get much public attention until after the November elections, since that’s when current leaders typically announce their plans. Ryan’s retirement announcement came earlier than many in Washington had expected and created a unique opportunity for a long campaign, providing the grass-roots groups time to put on the pressure.
“To be successful in any kind of an effort like this, it takes grass-roots action early, consistently and almost at a slow steady stream,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a Tea Party Patriots co-founder.
Martin says her group has about 3 million supporters and has successfully built grass-roots campaigns that helped force out former Speaker John A. Boehner and blocked McCarthy from replacing him. The leadership problem hasn’t changed, she suggested.
“Conservative voters around the country are so exasperated with what they see happening in Congress,” she said. “They have helped deliver Republican majorities … and we’re still not reaching the goals that we set out to achieve.”
The light legislative agenda is one of the reasons conservative groups have time to wade into the speaker’s race, said David Bozell, president of ForAmerica.
But Bozell said he hasn’t truly mobilized his nearly 8 million Facebook supporters for Jordan just yet, although he polled the group on a statement that Jordan would be an excellent choice for speaker and 88 percent agreed.
When Jordan announces his candidacy for speaker, ForAmerica will “be off and running” to build support for him, Bozell said. Jordan has signaled he wouldn’t announce a speaker bid until after November, but Bozell said it is not wise for him or any potential candidate to wait.
“There are options to replace Ryan who are laying low in the hopes they’re ‘drafted.’ I disagree,” he said. “It’s too cute by half. If you want to be speaker, prove that you want it, prove that you’re going to succeed.”
Jordan needs to show he wants to be speaker, in contrast to Ryan, who has said over and over again that he didn’t, Bozell said.
“I think that can lead to bad policy outcomes, not wanting the gig,” he said.
Bozell is worried that Republican leaders plan to do nothing for the rest of 2018, which would depress conservative turnout in the midterms. To motivate the base, Jordan and the Freedom Caucus need to “flex their muscles” and prevent that from happening he said.
Launching a speaker campaign now would allow Jordan to present an alternative vision on how to lead the House.
“If he declares before November … I think it could be a motivator for grass-roots conservatives out there, the possibility of Jim Jordan as speaker,” Bozell said. “Not announcing I don’t think would be a demotivator, and I don’t think it would have a negative effect. But announcing would get people off their couches for sure.”
Jordan would certainly be an underdog candidate for speaker. His primary backers would be the Freedom Caucus, a group he and some other conservative members started in 2015. They have roughly three dozen members and a handful of other allies outside of the caucus.
To win a speaker’s race, Jordan would have to expand that reach. He could possibly make inroads with some of the conservatives in the Republican Study Committee, which he chaired in the 112th Congress, and incoming GOP freshmen.
“We would not be engaged in it if we did not think he had a shot,” Martin of the Tea Party Patriots said. Other groups echoed that sentiment.
Still, a path to 218 seems hard to find. But as Freedom Caucus member Raúl Labrador hinted at recently, Jordan may need to win only a simple majority of the conference to start.
In a conversation with Labrador and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, a reporter asked what path Jordan would have to 218 Republican votes when he didn’t believe he could get the support of the 32-member Republican Steering Committee that selects committee leaders to chair the Oversight panel.
“What path to 270 [electoral votes] was there for Donald Trump?” Meadows said.
Regarding the Steering Committee, Labrador said, “You’re comparing an insider group that decides who the chairman is versus the outsider group, which is all the members of the conference deciding who the speaker is.”
After the reporter pointed out the outside group would still have influence as voting members of the conference, Labrador said, “Yeah, but are they going to vote on the floor against whoever the majority of the conference picks?”
And therein lies the Freedom Caucus’ strategy. They, with the help of the conservative grass roots, will try to build a simple majority support for Jordan and hope that those who oppose him aren’t willing to use the same hardball tactics that the Freedom Caucus has signaled it’s willing to deploy against McCarthy.
But to get even a simple majority of the conference — the exact number of which will not be clear until after November — the grass-roots activists’ calls will have to register with their representatives.
“Never underestimate the power of the American people’s voice,” Meadows said.