With the comfortable election Thursday of Rep. Kevin McCarthy as House Majority Leader and the choice of Rep. Steve Scalise to replace him as Majority Whip, House Republicans opted for continuity as well as recognition of conservative clout in their leadership hierarchy.
The shakeup in the Numbers Two and Three positions in the Republican leadership ladder was sparked last week by the resignation of Majority Leader Eric Cantor the day after his stunning defeat for renomination in Virginia's 7th District.
To the surprise of just about nobody, McCarthy —a four-term lawmaker from California and his party's top vote-counter in the House —won the majority leader's race on a secret ballot over late-starting opponent and tea party-favored Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.
In the three-candidate race for majority Whip, Scalise, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, won on the first ballot. His opponents were Chief Deputy Whip Pete Roskam of Illinois, considered a quiet insider in the House GOP leadership, and two-term Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, a tea party hero who has pushed such controversial measures as separating food stamps from the Farm Bill.
In large part because he is a southerner in a Conference in which 100 out of the 233 Members come from the South, Scalise began the race with an early advantage and continued to gain support. On the same day he announced for whip, the Louisianan had the support of two Members of Roskam's own Illinois delegation — Aaron Schock and John Shimkus — and of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who holds the Number Four position in leadership as Conference Chairman.
At first glance, the pair would seem an "odd couple:" McCarthy, an insider who has irked the more conservative element in his party by embracing immigration reform, and Scalise, a policy guy who has a record mobilizing data and information behind conservative causes as RSC chairman. (On the day that Cantor resigned, Scalise was addressing a meeting of conservative activists on how Republican lawmakers planned to keep up the House investigation of IRS abuses).
Often likened half-in-jest to nefarious House Whip Frank Underwood in the hit Netflix series "House of Cards," McCarthy is considered without equal in building personal relationships with his colleagues. Within 48 hours of Cantor's announcement, McCarthy had lined up so much support that two Texans considered potentially strong opponents —House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions —opted out of the race. Both were considered to the right of the Californian on the conservative scale.
With the encouragement of fellow conservative activist Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Justin Amash of Michigan, Labrador decided a week ago to challenge McCarthy for leader. His goal was to rally the estimated 60-to-80 Republican lawmakers considered tea party-friendly to his banner. But even colleagues within the conservative base in the House signed on with McCarthy early.
Freshman Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina, who has a strong following among grass-roots conservatives in the tea party, told Newsmax: "Both Raul and Kevin are good guys, but I'm for Kevin because he's capable and understands the temperament of the Republican Members."
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, a House classmate of Labrador's, told us "I worked with Kevin on some things and he's well-respected by the [Republican Conference]." As to whether someone considered very much an establishment Republican will work closely with the conservatives who are especially strong within the freshman and sophomore classes in the House, Fleischmann replied: "Kevin is very cognizant that this is a conservative Conference and wants a conservative voice to lead it — especially after November, when we pick up more seats and are in combat with the White House."
Perhaps the most poignant commentary on the Republican leadership change came from Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and someone who knows all of the players within the House GOP leadership well.
"Those outside Congress will never understand leadership races," he told us, "The votes are personal, based on years of working together. The opinions of issue groups have very little impact on such races and those trying to read the tea leaves on ideological shifts are likely to confuse themselves and/or others."
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