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As speaker, ‘fire-breather’ Jordan would have to become deal-maker

Boehner in 2021: ‘Never saw a guy who spent more time tearing things apart’

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, battled against House GOP leadership but now is vying to be speaker.
House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, battled against House GOP leadership but now is vying to be speaker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Less than a decade ago, Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan was a foil for many in his party, an often cantankerous outlier whose hard-line ideology exasperated GOP leaders and contributed to John A. Boehner’s decision to step down as speaker in 2015.

But even as nearly two dozen of his colleagues were voting for him to be speaker in January, Jordan stood behind Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s ultimately successful quest for the job. Now McCarthy’s ouster has spurred Jordan to take a step many political analysts and Republicans have long anticipated he’d take. 

The former wrestling coach who once antagonized party leadership now wants to be the party’s leader.

“Early on he wasn’t really given the opportunity to show what he’s capable of because of his steadfast conservative positions,” said Ray Yonkura, who was Jordan’s chief of staff for a decade and now does political work for him. “He was oftentimes pushed to the side, or different Republican leaders tried to keep him down. 

“Once he was given an opportunity to show what he’s capable of, I think a lot of people realized that this is somebody whose skill set can actually be good in a leadership role.”

He received a key blessing Friday morning, when former President Donald Trump endorsed the Ohioan’s bid on his social media platform Truth Social. 

Jordan, wrote Trump, “will be a GREAT Speaker of the House….He is STRONG on Crime, Borders, our Military/Vets, & 2nd Amendment.”

“He’s changed,” one veteran Ohio lawmaker said of Jordan. “He’s much more of a team player now; he works inside instead of outside the group. … I think McCarthy’s gamble of moving him inside the tent and giving him the Judiciary ranking membership and now the Judiciary chairman spot has paid off.”

Still, the Republican acknowledged that as speaker, “It’s uncharted waters for him. I don’t know what he’ll do.”

A rhetorical bomb-thrower

Despite his insistence that his goal was to chair the Judiciary Committee, a post he assumed in January, Jordan’s name has long been part of conversations about speakers, albeit typically as a spoiler. He got one vote for speaker in 2013, two votes two years later. In 2018, against McCarthy for minority leader, he got 43 votes. McCarthy received 159. On the third House ballot for speaker on Jan. 3, 20 of his colleagues voted for him over McCarthy, including Florida’s Matt Gaetz, whose motion to vacate the speaker’s office led to McCarthy’s ouster on Tuesday.

Even as he’s allied himself with party leadership, Jordan has remained a rhetorical bomb-thrower, gleefully taking potshots at Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden’s son, while stridently defending Trump, and happily hijacking hearings to aggressively grill witnesses. 

His role as one of Trump’s fiercest allies made him a “material witness” to the select House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, but Jordan ignored a subpoena from the committee to testify. Instead, he has accused Democrats of unfairly vilifying Trump. 

During the Jan. 6 congressional session to certify the 2020 election results, Jordan objected to Arizona’s electoral results, arguing that Trump received 11 million more votes than he did in 2016 and that House Republicans had won 27 of 27 toss-up congressional races. “But somehow the guy who never left his house won the election,” he said, using a common GOP insult for Biden because of the Democrat’s isolation during the pandemic.

A week later, he claimed in a House Rules debate that he “never said that this election was stolen,” distancing himself from the Jan. 6 riot of Trump supporters inflamed by the same kind of rhetoric.

His defense of Trump — he’d also served on the defense team in Trump’s 2019 impeachment — led to Jordan receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Jan. 11, 2021 —  an honor reserved for civilians who make “an especially meritorious contribution” to national security, world peace, culture or “other significant public or private endeavors.” The White House at the time noted Jordan “led the effort to confront the impeachment witch hunt.”

“Jim Jordan has been absolutely loyal to Donald Trump,” said Tom Zawistowski, an Ohio conservative activist who heads the “We the People Convention.” “He has not wavered at all, through thick and thin. What’s Donald Trump going to need if he pulls off winning the presidency again? He’ll need a speaker of the House to help pass legislation to reform our country and restore it. That’s Jim Jordan. That ain’t Scalise. That ain’t McCarthy.”

The former high school and college wrestler — in high school, he won 150 matches and lost one, and still remembers the name of the guy who beat him — came to Washington in 2007 a pugilist, pushing his party right at every opportunity, particularly after Boehner took the gavel following a GOP wave election in 2010 fueled by the “tea party” movement. 

Jordan played a key role in the 2013 government shutdown, allying himself with conservatives who wanted to force changes to the 2010 health care law. Boehner, whose rural southwest Ohio district abutted Jordan’s, later called him a “legislative terrorist.” 

“I just never saw a guy who spent more time tearing things apart — never building anything, never putting anything together,” Boehner said of Jordan in 2021. Through a spokesman, Boehner declined to comment on Jordan’s current bid.

Path to running

Despite their differences, there are parallels between Jordan’s and Boehner’s pursuit of the speakership.

Just as Boehner began his career in Congress as part of the conservative “Gang of Seven,” which was considered the party’s right flank, Jordan attached himself to the Republican Study Committee and later co-founded the conservative Freedom Caucus. 

And just as Boehner earned institutional street cred for leading the House Education Committee, Jordan later became ranking Republican first of the House Oversight Committee, then ranking member and now chair of Judiciary, in part because McCarthy carefully cultivated a relationship with him and gave him a seat at the table. 

“He came in as a fire-breather. He’s still an ideologue, but I think he has learned how to play the game,” said David Cohen, director of the applied politics program at the University of Akron.

Throughout, he’s been easily elected, winning with 69.2 percent of the vote in 2022 in a district where he didn’t need to raise much to get reelected. In 2010, for example, he raised just $850,292. His fundraising didn’t become powerful until Trump became president and, later, he became a committee head. During his most recent cycle, he raised nearly $14 million.

 “He doesn’t really raise a lot of money for his campaign,” said Zawistowski. “He just does what the voters want and wins by 30 percent all the time.”

‘His way or no way’

Yonkura said Jordan’s ideology has remained consistent. But “his tactics, perhaps, and his approach — that has probably matured, I think, over the years.”

But ideological consistency doesn’t equal ability to govern, cautions a longtime Ohio Republican with ties to D.C.

“It’s his way or no way,” the Republican said. “That’s probably pretty good for the eight guys who don’t want to do anything, but for the people who want to pass appropriations bills that can become law, I think he makes it difficult.

“Jordan does have a strong following, but he has a strong following until you have to make laws,” the Republican said. “The Senate is not going to deal with the sort of bills he’s going to pass. He’s going to have to make a deal there. And when he makes a deal, they’ll vote him out.”

In the 16 years he’s been in Congress, Jordan has served as the original sponsor of 53 bills, resolutions and amendments. Four have passed the House, including a resolution expressing sympathy for victims of flooding in Ohio in August 2007 and an amendment barring money from a loan guarantee program from being spent on renewable energy systems, electric power transmission systems or biofuel projects. His most notable achievement was adoption of the resolution establishing a Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

In 2018, Jordan faced the most serious scandal of his political career when former Ohio State University wrestler Mike DiSabato reported that he was sexually abused by OSU doctor Richard Strauss between 1987 and 1991 and that Jordan, an assistant coach at the time, knew about the abuse but did not report it. At least six former wrestlers told CNN in 2020 that Jordan knew about the allegations.

DiSabato’s brother Adam later told an Ohio House Civil Justice Committee in 2020 that after the media reported the allegations, Jordan called him “crying, groveling … begging me to go against my brother.”  

Jordan has consistently denied that he knew about the abuse. Still, the accusations earned him the nickname “Gym Jordan” from critics. 

On Thursday, Mike DiSabato was asked what he thought about Jordan entering the speaker race.

“I don’t have much to say,” he said. “Other than that he’s got some nerve.”

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