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Why So Few House Republican Leadership Races Are Contested

Five of the seven House GOP leadership positions are solo affairs

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, arrives for the House Republican leadership candidate forum in the Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Jordan is running for minority leader, one of only two contested leadership elections in the House Republican Conference. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, arrives for the House Republican leadership candidate forum in the Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Jordan is running for minority leader, one of only two contested leadership elections in the House Republican Conference. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans on Wednesday are poised to elect their leadership team for the 116th Congress with little drama. Only the top and bottom slots of their seven elected positions are being contested despite the party losing more than 30 seats and its majority in the midterms.  

At the top, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy is expected to easily defeat Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan for minority leader.

Jordan, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, has been one of the few voices calling for new Republican leadership after the party’s drubbing last week.

“The top priorities of our conference for the next two years should be to defend the president and to regain the trust of the American people so we can win back the majority and enact good policy,” Jordan said in a “Dear Colleague” letter he sent Friday. “To do this, we need new leadership. We can’t just stay on the same path and expect different results.”

But beyond his Freedom Caucus colleagues, Jordan’s appeals have largely fallen on deaf ears. 

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‘United front’

The lack of contested races just shows Republicans are more united than people think, Rep. Markwayne Mullin said. 

“You’re contested when you’re divided,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “That’s what you’re seeing with the Democratic Party right now. We’re not. I mean, we’re a very united front.”

North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson attributed the limited contests to the good candidates running for leadership. He said he’s backing McCarthy for minority leader. 

“He’s the one who’s helped carry the president’s agenda. He’s the one who’s been to every one of our districts, helping us raise a [substantial] amount of dollars. He’s earned it,” Hudson said. 

[Following GOP Loses, Emmer Poised to be Next NRCC Chairman]

Besides minority leader, the only other contested race is for Republican Policy Committee chairman, the lowest ranked of the seven elected leadership positions.

The two contenders — Freedom Caucus members Gary Palmer of Alabama and David Schweikert of Arizona — are ideologically aligned and have similar visions for reinvigorating the largely dormant committee into a think tank-style organization where policy ideas are proposed, debated and vetted. They had both expressed interest in the post before Republicans lost the majority.

“We both like each other,” Schweikert said. “In many ways, I think we promote much of the same creativity.”

The middle five leadership positions are uncontested, guaranteeing the Republican Conference will elect Louisiana’s Steve Scalise as minority whip, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as conference chairwoman, Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker as conference vice chairman and Missouri Rep. Jason Smith as conference secretary.

McCarthy, Scalise and Smith currently hold the same positions in the majority that they’re running for in the minority, but they’ll all technically move up a rank since Republicans are losing the speaker position. The other members elected Wednesday will be new to leadership.

One woman, again

Republicans will still have only one woman in leadership, with Cheney replacing Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers as conference chairwoman, their No. 3 position in the minority.

McMorris Rodgers, who has held the No. 4 slot in the majority for three terms, has opted to instead secure a subcommittee ranking member post on the Energy and Commerce Committee. 

Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler said she doesn’t think having only one woman in leadership is a problem “because we’re mainly focused on ideas and issues — and those aren’t gender-specific.”

Cheney said it would be great to have more women in the Republican Conference — only 13 won their elections last week, though four races featuring GOP women are still uncalled — but first the party needs to do a better job of reaching women in its messaging. 

“We, as Republicans, have got to make sure that we’re getting the message out there and that we’re speaking for and helping to encourage women across the political spectrum,” she said. “And so I’m particularly excited about that part of this and about getting started in terms of making sure we get the message out about what our policies will do and why they’re the right policies.”

Some Republicans have grumbled about the party’s messaging this Congress, pointing to the need for a new person to head the conference, since that’s where messaging operations are run. 

While the messaging strategy itself often comes from the entire leadership team with heavy input from the top Republican — which the past three years has been Speaker Paul D. Ryan — the conference chair decides the best platforms for communicating that message.

McMorris Rodgers (before she decided not to run) was not the only membership of leadership who was likely to be challenged, however. 

Private complaints about the NRCC, House Republicans’ campaign arm, likely contributed to Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers not seeking another term as the committee’s chairman. 

While several members initially expressed interest in the post, only Emmer ended up running.

Texas Rep. Roger Williams, who ran for NRCC chairman last cycle but lost to Stivers, said several colleagues had encouraged him to run again, but he “didn’t have the desire to” because he’s shifted his focus to other priorities such as his work on the Financial Services Committee. 

“I think Emmer, he’ll do a good job, and he made mention of my name in there that he’s going to be talking to me on some of the ideas I had,” Williams said, referring to a leadership candidate forum the conference held Tuesday evening. 

‘Nothing in particular’

Two of the women who were encouraged to run for leadership, particularly for NRCC chair, Reps. Ann Wagner of Missouri and Elise Stefanik of New York, were coy when asked if there was a reason they ultimately didn’t.

“No, nothing in particular,” Wagner said as the two left the candidate forum together.

“I appreciated the encouragement from our colleagues,” Stefanik added. “I was encouraging Ann to run. So it’s nice to hear encouragement from people that are looking for new voices in leadership.”

Some Freedom Caucus members, such as Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry, feel the conference should spend more time digesting the election results, rather than rushing the leadership elections. 

“We ought to have a real in-depth conversation about how we ended up where we are and what the plan is to not be here,” Perry said. “Unless we want to keep on losing races, then we ought to consider doing something different than we’ve been doing.” 

A delay in the GOP leadership elections does not appear to be in the cards, even though some members who had wanted to run couldn’t because their re-election races still remain too close to call. California’s Mimi Walters had planned to run for NRCC chair, and Utah’s Mia Love had also been floated as a possible leadership candidate. 

The level of frustration among House Republicans and the amount of blame they assign to the current leadership team for the midterm losses can likely be measured in how many votes Jordan ultimately gets for minority leader. McCarthy is expected to get at least two-thirds of the conference’s support.

Jordan declined to say how much support he expects to get but noted he hopes to defy the odds. 

“That’s why they kick the ball off on Friday night,” he said. “You’ve got to play the game to see who’s going to win.”

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