House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy has what appears to be a wide-open route to the No. 2 spot in the House Republican leadership after conservatives' favored candidate, Jeb Hensarling, said he wouldn't run for majority leader.
The only certain obstacle in McCarthy's path had been Rep. Pete Sessions. But late Thursday, the Rules Committee chairman dropped his bid for Eric Cantor's job.
Unlike Hensarling, Sessions was a long-shot to topple McCarthy and his vote-counting machine. Sessions is not nearly as popular among conservatives in the conference, and while he has a strong relationship with Speaker John Boehner, most of the establishment-allied Republicans are already rallying behind McCarthy.
In his statement ending his leadership campaign, Sessions said that "it became obvious to me that the measures necessary to run a successful campaign would have created unnecessary and painful division within our party."
But a divisive internal campaign could yet happen. Late Thursday night National Journal learned that Rep. Raul Labrador is considering a run for majority leader. Labrador, who was approached by several conservatives Thursday morning after Hensarling decided not to run, would still face a major challenge in building a coalition broad enough to seriously contest McCarthy in next Thursday's special election.
If McCarthy wins the majority leader's post, there will be an immediate and subsequent contest to replace him as majority whip. It was thought that this race would feature Reps. Steve Scalise and Peter Roskam going head-to-head, and senior Republicans pegged Scalise as the odds-on favorite. But Rep. Marlin Stutzman let it be known Thursday morning that he, too, will run, according to GOP aides, complicating the math of that contest as Stutzman could draw some conservative support away from Scalise.
Tuesday's shocking primary defeat of Cantor — and his subsequent announcement that he'll step down as majority leader effective July 31 — added urgency to the conservatives' cause. Instead of waiting until November's conference elections to shake up what they view as a moderate, risk-averse leadership team, they saw an opportunity to do so in next Thursday's special election to replace Cantor.
Hensarling's decision is a blow to House conservatives, as he was the last of their preferred candidates to be seriously considering a run against McCarthy. (Conservatives are launching a last-minute attempt to change the mind of Rep. Jim Jordan, who's already ruled out a run, but it's doubtful they'll find any success.)
For the sizable bloc of tea-party-allied lawmakers who have been fixated on injecting fresh blood into the uppermost echelons of GOP leadership, only a couple of candidates are viewed as legitimate and acceptable besides Hensarling and Jordan: Paul Ryan and Tom Price.
But Ryan and Jordan have repeatedly and emphatically denied any interest in a leadership race. Price, who already lost a bid for conference chair at the outset of this Congress, confirmed in a statement Thursday morning that he's focused on taking over the Budget Committee from Ryan next year. It's highly unlikely that any other conservative lawmaker could piece together the coalition needed to win a leadership post — especially on such short notice.
If Hensarling was the conservatives' last best hope, he certainly didn't appear to be feeling any pressure. He met with allies throughout the day Wednesday, yet appeared in no hurry to reach a decision. McCarthy, meanwhile, threw his vote-counting operation into high gear, hosting groups of lawmakers in his office and working his colleagues on the House floor. With the election a week away, and McCarthy's team up and running, time was running out for Hensarling to enter the race — and conservatives knew it.
"Tonight I will pray that @RepHensarling runs for majority leader," Rep. Justin Amash, a frequent critic of the current leadership, tweeted Wednesday night. "I respect him & trust him. Our country needs him."
But Hensarling decided to focus on chairing Financial Services. "Although I am humbled by the calls, emails, and conversations from my colleagues encouraging me to return to leadership for the remainder of the 113th Congress, I will not be a candidate for Majority Leader next week," he said Thursday. "After prayerful reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this is not the right office at the right time for me and my family."
A Hensarling bid would have given conservatives a chance to infiltrate one of the top two GOP leadership posts. Senior Republicans believe he could give McCarthy a competitive race for three reasons: his standing as a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee; his conference-wide reputation as a fiscal hawk; and his relationships in the Texas delegation, which boasts two dozen votes in next week's election. (Sessions, also a Texan, had attempted to unite the Lone Star State delegation behind him before bowing out.)
Of course, there was never any guarantee that Hensarling could win; in fact, some Republicans think McCarthy can't be beaten next week, given the short turnaround. Hensarling, had he jumped in, would have just one week to organize against an opponent whose operation is buzzing along and already securing commitments from dozens of lawmakers. "I just don't see it," one senior Republican aide not affiliated with either office said of Hensarling's chances.
Hensarling, of course, was aware of these factors. As the former manager of a presidential campaign and onetime executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he is as politically savvy as they come. And, despite his reputation as a rock-ribbed conservative, Hensarling also is known for his pragmatic streak.
"Jeb Hensarling is not the type of member who makes reckless or impulsive decisions. He's always methodical and thoughtful," says Brad Dayspring, communications director at the NRSC and a former Hensarling staffer. "He likes to have what he calls a 'menu of options' to choose from. He's just not the kind of person who rushes to judgment on anything."
In reality, it's not clear Hensarling ever had strong interest in running; he has young children at home, and is known to spend every moment he can in his Dallas-area congressional district. That said, if Hensarling has been scanning a "menu of options" over the last 48 hours, there's an alternative that probably looks quite appealing. Rather than attempt a last-minute, uphill campaign against a well-organized foe, he could sit out next week's election — and instead begin organizing to run against McCarthy in November's conference elections.
It would be a win for Hensarling, as well as for conservatives. They would get to spend the next five months organizing a legitimate campaign to infiltrate the second-highest position in leadership, and Hensarling would get to hold an interim majority leader's feet to the fire on his signature issue: ending the Export-Import bank. If McCarthy blocks Hensarling's crusade to deny reauthorization to the bank, the Right goes insane and Hensarling benefits; if McCarthy approves Hensarling's plan, the bank goes away and Hensarling gets a defining win on his trademark issue.
It makes a whole lot of sense — but it's unclear whether Hensarling's decision not to run is just for next week's election, or for the November contests as well. "My statement this morning speaks for itself," Hensarling said Thursday afternoon, unwilling to engage the question of whether he could run for a leadership spot in November.
Even if Hensarling is willing to run later, there's no immediate consolation for the disgruntled conservatives who have long been craving the chance to reshuffle leadership — and who view next week's special election as an unexpected golden opportunity. Still, the network of support would still be in place for a November bid. Already some of those conservatives have been reaching out to former Sen. Phil Gramm, Hensarling's onetime college professor and later his boss on Capitol Hill, asking him to pressure Hensarling into a leadership race. That outreach is likely to continue throughout the summer months.
"He's certainly capable of it. I don't think Jeb is inclined to want it," Gramm said. "But you never know. Sometimes opportunity knocks on the door; other times you have to go knock the door in."
This post has been updated with the news that Rep. Sessions has dropped his bid for majority leader.