House GOP heads into mostly locked-up leadership elections, with chaos ahead

By | November 15, 2022

House Republicans will meet on Tuesday to tap the leaders of the majority they’re one vote from officially claiming, their most crucial decisions before the full chamber picks its speaker on Jan. 3.

In a closed conference meeting with secret ballots, Republicans are first expected to nominate GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy for speaker over challenger Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), an option pushed by the Donald Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus.

The conference will then tick down the list and vote for the rest of their leadership team: majority leader, whip, conference chair, House GOP campaigns chief and more.

There are already concerns among Republicans on all sides that failing to rally around the right leaders will leave them further weakened against a stronger-than-expected House Democratic minority and a Democratic Senate. Freedom Caucus members like Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), who is declining to say if he would back McCarthy, said the next GOP speaker will have to reflect a conference that has moved to the right.

“The Speaker of the House, whomever he or she is, will be required to recognize the center of gravity of the conference itself. And the Freedom Caucus has moved that center of gravity to the right,” Higgins said, criticizing past Speaker Paul Ryan for cutting bipartisan deals that were not “reflective of the deepest core principles of the American people.”

On the other side, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — a frequent McCarthy headache in the past — is trying to whip members to support the California Republican, arguing that dragged-out divisions could mean a Democratic candidate for speaker could pull an upset.

“If we don’t unify behind Kevin McCarthy, we’re opening up the door for the Democrats to be able to recruit some of our Republicans,” Greene said, adding that there was a “spirited discussion” with “some of my closest allies and I’ve been talking to them a lot.”

Meanwhile, the race for House majority whip remains the most competitive, with Reps. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) all aggressively pursuing the No. 3 role after months of not-so-subtle jockeying.

Multiple Republicans have started to project that Banks, the current Republican Study Committee chair, and Ferguson, the deputy whip, now have an edge after the lackluster midterm results. Some of the conference has directed that frustration towards Emmer, who led House Republicans’ campaign arm the past two cycles. Emmer has publicly and privately defended his record by pointing out that the party gained seats over that period, even if November’s results were lower than expected.

The race between New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the current GOP conference chair, and freshman Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) seems more locked up, as House Republicans have mostly signaled they’ll reelect Stefanik. But Donalds isn’t going down quietly, as colleagues reported a feisty candidate forum on Monday.

Donalds, a House Freedom Caucus member who is challenging Stefanik from the right, sought to distinguish himself from the moderate-turned-MAGA New York Republican, touting his fundraising as well as his appeal to different voters as one of the two current Black House Republicans. His performance was met with mixed reviews, with some lawmakers saying he projected strength and others arguing he came off too aggressive in his attempts to battle Stefanik on the stage.

“I definitely do think I have a shot. I think it’s going to be pretty close — we’ll see what happens. That’s just my feel,” Donalds said, while declining to share specifics about his whip count.

Stefanik, the top woman in GOP leadership, faced criticism in the past from conservative members of the conference who doubted if her evolution into a MAGA ally was genuine. She’s silenced many of those complaints now, including with an early endorsement of Trump for president in 2024, and her colleagues have credited her for alleviating the headaches that came with Trump-critic Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).

During the candidate forum, Stefanik also responded to a question from House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) about her pledge to stay in the position for only one term, telling the room of GOP lawmakers that she initially wanted to seek a committee gavel before receiving encouragement from colleagues to run for a second term. It’s a signal Stefanik’s team is looking to rewrite the narrative on that front, as her office previously forcefully denied the one-term pledge.

One previously competitive race to lead the NRCC next cycle is now uncontested. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) conceded on Monday, as POLITICO first reported, leaving Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) now the sole member running. And Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) faces no competition in his bid to jump from minority whip to majority leader.

McCarthy faces a tougher path, however, as his quest for the House gavel is just getting started. While he’s expected to win the party nomination Tuesday, he still needs to find a path to 218 floor votes by the beginning of January. Though Biggs is challenging McCarthy Tuesday, the Freedom Caucus put him forward as a symbolic challenger meant to show the Californian’s lack of support, not a real candidate for the position.

Instead, members of the House Freedom Caucus view the next seven weeks as a key stretch to force McCarthy to the negotiating table or try to build support for a consensus challenger. The caucus is pushing for a laundry list of changes to the conference and House rules, including strengthening the ability to oust a speaker and greater representation on an internal panel that doles out plum committee positions. They also want commitments on amendments, government funding bills and a requirement that legislation brought to the floor has to be supported by a majority of the conference.

“We just view it as another step in the process to figure out where we are going. … No one has 218 or a sufficient number, and then the question is what are we going to do to get there,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) about what comes after Tuesday.

At least one Republican is already vowing to vote against McCarthy in January: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who has floated electing Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as an alternative. Depending on how narrow the GOP majority ends up, McCarthy can only afford to lose a handful of members in the full floor vote.

But any shift by McCarthy toward the Freedom Caucus is likely to cause headaches from the center of the conference, where governing-minded members can also use the razor-thin majority and are talking about needing to make bipartisan deals.

“The focus this past week has been on [the House Freedom Caucus]. I believe this is rather a prime moment for the Problem Solvers and Mainstreet GOP to make an important impact. It’s time we flex our muscles,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who leads the moderate Mainstreet GOP. “If we work in [a] bipartisan manner we can hit singles and America wins.”

Some hardliners are speaking with moderate Republicans to gauge how they feel about the speaker situation, as the centrists increasingly feel left out of the McCarthy-Freedom Caucus negotiations. One Republican familiar with the matter said Jordan and Gaetz have started talks with moderate Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), the head of the Republican Governance Group.

Some hypothesized that moderates coming together could be a threat to McCarthy’s bid, as they might team up with Democrats. Bacon shot down that idea.

“I believe we will get to 218 and that it will be Kevin,” the Nebraskan said.