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GOP prepares for leadership vote after disappointing midterms

Expecting uncalled races to deliver majority, McCarthy bids to be speaker

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.,  at a Sept. 29 news conference about the House Republicans’ “Commitment to America" agenda. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., stand behind him.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., at a Sept. 29 news conference about the House Republicans’ “Commitment to America" agenda. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., stand behind him. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

How much House Republicans blame their current leadership team for a paltry midterm election performance will become clear Tuesday as the conference holds its leadership elections. 

More than a dozen races had not been called Monday afternoon, and seats won by the GOP were still a handful short of the 218 needed for a majority, leading some members to request the leadership elections be delayed. Handicappers were projecting a narrow Republican majority of 220 to 222 seats.

The entire GOP leadership team is running for promotions or the same positions. The top two leaders, Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, are currently unchallenged in their respective bids for speaker and majority leader, although Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., is considering jumping in against McCarthy, CNN first reported.

Biggs declined to say if he is running for speaker, but he told reporters Monday that “there will be somebody who runs tomorrow.”

Races for several other GOP leadership positions — majority whip, conference chair, National Republican Congressional Committee chair and conference secretary — are contested. 

The two Republicans taking the most heat for Tuesday’s results are McCarthy and outgoing NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who is running for majority whip. 

Emmer is in a three-way contest for whip with Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Banks of Indiana and Republican Chief Deputy Whip Drew Ferguson of Georgia. Although Emmer has said the election results would not affect the whip race, a loss would likely be due to the NRCC underperforming this cycle. 

Speaker race

The underwhelming election results have far-right conservatives agitating against McCarthy as he makes his second run for a gavel he sought and was denied in 2015, when Paul D. Ryan was chosen to succeed Speaker John A. Boehner. Ryan retired barely three years later, and McCarthy was elected minority leader in 2018.

That minority leader election required winning only a simple majority vote in the conference. So does Tuesday’s conference vote for the speaker nomination, which McCarthy should be able to win even if a challenger were to emerge. 

But to be formally elected speaker, McCarthy will need to secure votes from a majority of the full House in a January floor vote. With a two- to four-seat majority, McCarthy would not have a lot of room to maneuver.

“I am determined to ensure that this majority reaches its full potential,” McCarthy said in a letter to Republicans last week announcing his speaker bid. “I will be a listener every bit as much as a Speaker, striving to build consensus from the bottom-up rather than commanding the agenda from the top-down.”

Former President Donald Trump endorsed McCarthy for speaker a day before Election Day.

Biggs, a former House Freedom Caucus chairman, could challenge McCarthy in the conference vote simply to demonstrate the California Republican doesn’t have 218 votes to be elected speaker on the floor. From there, conservatives could negotiate concessions from McCarthy or try to prop up an alternative that could get 218 votes — if one exists. 

“All I can say is nobody has 218” votes, Biggs said. 

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who may make a bid to be speaker, arrives at the FreedomWorks office on Monday for a forum on “House and GOP Conference rules for the 118th Congress.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In an interview last week with Lindell TV, Biggs said leaders told members there would be a wave election in which Republicans gained 20 to 40 seats, and when that didn’t happen, members needed to discuss what happened. He said McCarthy has “backpedaled on things like impeachment, and in some ways that indicates a willingness to be weakening the oversight authority that we need to have and the leverage points we need to have in order to deal with a Democrat president.”

The extent of McCarthy’s opposition is unclear, but at least a handful of Republicans have publicly said they’re withholding their support for now. 

“He is not my first choice, or frankly even in my top 100,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said Thursday on his podcast “Firebrand.” 

Gaetz and other hardline conservatives favor Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, who challenged McCarthy for minority leader in 2018. But Jordan, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus who is poised to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has publicly said he would back McCarthy for speaker. 

McCarthy “has essentially had a two-year audition where he had the exclusive opportunity to earn the vote of the conference to demonstrate he was willing to fight against the Biden-Pelosi-Schumer agenda, and he failed to do that,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., said in a Fox News interview.

Although no challengers to McCarthy emerged during a candidate forum Monday evening, Good said afterward he expects Biggs to challenge McCarthy in the conference vote Tuesday and to “get a significant number of votes,” including his.

Even before the election, Freedom Caucus members put together a proposal containing rules changes they planned to pressure GOP leaders to enact. 

Many of their proposals focus on decentralizing power, such as requiring legislation GOP leaders bring to the floor to be supported by a majority of the conference, having committee members elect their chairs instead of the Republican Steering Committee stacked with leadership members and their allies, and opening all legislation to amendments, with guaranteed votes on amendments that have support of at least 10 percent of the conference.  

Most controversially, Freedom Caucus members want to restore the previous “motion to vacate” rule governing the removal of a speaker, allowing any member to file a privileged motion to force a vote. That version of the rule was used to force out Boehner in 2015, and McCarthy is opposed to going back to it.

“We cannot afford to choose leaders who will not change the way of this town, who will not stand up for the people who sent us here to change it,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said in a Washington Examiner op-ed, citing some of the rule changes conservatives are seeking.

Gaetz, however, indicated he’s not going to budge on his opposition to McCarthy no matter what concessions are made, and urged his colleagues to hold firm as well. 

“One feature of this town is that the swamp always finds out what you want and they dangle it in front of you,” he said, citing committee assignments and appropriations requests as examples. “Don’t allow your public service to be ransomed in such a way.” 

Majority leader

Scalise, who has held the Republican whip position since 2014, starting as No. 3 in the majority and moving to No. 2 in the minority, is running unopposed for majority leader. 

The majority leader controls the House floor schedule, and McCarthy has already tasked Scalise with overseeing a GOP transition team in charge of turning Republicans’ “Commitment to America” campaign agenda into legislation. 

“The American people deserve a House of Representatives that can move the agenda that was promised to them on the campaign trail,” Scalise said in a letter to colleagues last week asking for their support. 

Majority whip

With McCarthy and Scalise both looking to move up a rung, one of the most competitive battles is for majority whip, with Emmer, Banks and Ferguson running.

Emmer touts his work at the NRCC the past two cycles raising record-breaking sums and picking up seats in 2020 that paved the way for Republicans to flip the House this cycle. 

Emmer said he plans to hold regular meetings with stakeholders from across the conference’s different factions and work with committees and other conference groups to provide legislative staff with bill comparisons and overviews of broader bill dynamics.

Banks said he’s had hundreds of one-on-one conversations with conference members to understand their priorities. He plans to hold regular briefings with committee chairs and share information about bills with the conference so they’re not surprised by any provisions. 

On policy, Banks said he knows where the conference is already in agreement and where consensus building will be needed. 

Ferguson cites his experience as chief deputy whip and argues he would have a whip team that’s ready to operate on Day One. He said he wants to elevate rank-and-file member priorities, particularly on complex legislative packages.

“The job of whip is not only to count the votes but to go out and get the votes,” Ferguson said in a letter to colleagues. “My vision for the operation is a proactive, data-driven approach to tackle difficult issues and ensure members have what they need to make an informed vote for their constituents and the country.”

Conference chair

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik is running for a second term as Republican conference chair with Trump’s endorsement. 

“I think she’s fantastic,” Trump told Fox News Digital.

Stefanik served on the defense team for Trump’s first impeachment. She was first elected conference chair after Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney was ousted from the position for turning against Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. 

Stefanik faces a longshot challenge from Florida Rep. Byron Donalds, one of two Black Republicans now in the House conference. He released a video for his bid compiling some of his TV appearances and floor speeches, as well as pundits praising him as a rising GOP star. 

In a Fox News interview Sunday, Donalds said Republicans should stick to their agenda, despite winning less seats than anticipated.  

“We have to actually lay out a demonstrated plan, serious policies that voters actually believe in, and we can’t equivocate from that, even in what’s looking to be continued divided government, gridlock government,” he said. 

North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson has emphasized his current role as conference secretary and his experience as an NRCC vice chair for several cycles as he vies to chair the campaign committee. He most recently led the incumbent-protecting Patriot program. Before running for office himself, he worked as a chief of staff for Reps. Virginia Foxx and John Carter

Illinois Rep. Darin LaHood, who was the NRCC finance chair this cycle, had been seen as a potential candidate but is no longer running.

Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer currently chairs the Republican Policy Committee and is not facing any opposition as he runs for another term. Neither is Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson, who is running for another term as vice chair of the committee and has Stefanik’s endorsement.

At least three Republicans — Reps. Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin and Lisa McClain of Michigan — are running for Republican Conference secretary, a post Hudson is vacating to run for NRCC chair. 

“We feel very good about where Rep. Clyde is positioned in this race,” his spokesperson Madeline Huffman said in an email. “As the Freshman Representative to the Elected Leadership Committee, Rep. Clyde has established conference wide relationships over the last two years, and we believe his experience as a 28-year Naval Officer, Navy Commander, combat veteran, and small business owner make him uniquely qualified to serve as Conference Secretary.”

McClain sent her colleagues a flyer Monday touting her 30-plus years of business experience prior to coming to Congress. The freshman noted that she’s served on the GOP whip team and has passed three bills into law in her first term. 

“Looking forward, I recognize that how we lead in the majority will matter greatly, especially for the incoming class of conservatives,” she said. “As a businesswoman, I was driven to deliver for my clients, employees, and their families — fighting onerous bureaucratic regulations every single day. We need fighters to carry our conservative message forward and take on the socialist left — which is a battle I am ready for.”

Grothman cites experience serving in leadership in Wisconsin’s legislature and “lessons learned” the last time Republicans held the House majority.

“I try to be an articulate voice for conservative values while at the same time being conscious of the fact that members in close districts should not be made to take unnecessary tough votes that lead nowhere,” he said in an email to colleagues.

Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report. 

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