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.
McCarthy's path to winning next Thursday's special election still has obstacles. But one of the biggest people in his way, Rep. Pete Sessions, abruptly dropped his bid to replace Majority Leader Eric Cantor Thursday night.
But Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho could still give McCarthy a challenge. Labrador is quietly considering a campaign for majority leader, according to a source familiar with the congressman's thinking, potentially setting up a three-way race to replace Cantor.
Sessions, the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, argued before dropping out that he'd be the conservative who could bridge the House GOP's internal divide. "Texans, Georgians, Pennsylvanians — I can bring us together," he said.
Unlike Hensarling, Sessions seemed to be 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.
The dominoes don't stop falling there.
If McCarthy wins the majority leader's post next Thursday, 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 of Louisiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois 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, complicating the math of that contest as Stutzman could draw some conservative support away from Scalise.
Scalise's team pushed back against that notion Thursday afternoon, and one ally of the Louisiana Republican even argued that Scalise was close to clinching "the magic number" of supporters needed to sew up the race for majority whip. Scalise hoped to have the race wrapped up by Thursday evening when lawmakers leave town for the weekend, although that seems highly unlikely.
Stutzman, a third-term lawmaker from Indiana, is popular in the conference and especially well-liked by the young conservatives who comprised the classes of 2010 and 2012. He also enjoys good relations with powerful conservative groups outside the Capitol. Stutzman may be a more attractive option to the younger Republican Study Committee members than Scalise, whose leadership of the group — some call it a "debate society" — has drawn grumbles from some members looking for a more assertive approach.
It's not clear that Stutzman can win — odds are, he probably can't — but if he successfully splinters the conservative vote, Roskam could claim the whip's office with a coalition of moderates and establishment-friendly conservatives.
Whatever the outcome, the whip's race seems destined to be more competitive and suspenseful than the contest to replace Cantor. McCarthy, whose vote-counting operation was humming as of Wednesday morning, starts the contest with a significant lead on a possible challenger.
Before exiting the race, Sessions had one factor working in his favor: the size of the Texas delegation. Twenty-four House Republicans hail from the Lone Star state, and Republican sources expected the vast majority of them to back Sessions.
But one member of the Texas delegation, Rep. John Carter, conceded that McCarthy may've had a head start on Sessions. "Roy Blunt told me he had it sewn up, too. But John Boehner is speaker," Carter said, referring to a bygone GOP leadership race.
In a statement bowing out Thursday night, 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."
Hensarling's decision was a blow to the GOP's right flank, as he was the last of their preferred candidates to be seriously considering a run against McCarthy. For the sizable bloc of tea-party-allied lawmakers who have been fixated on injecting fresh blood into the upper echelons of GOP leadership, there are only a few whom they view as legitimate, acceptable candidates besides Hensarling: Paul Ryan, Jim Jordan, 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. And it's almost impossible to imagine any other conservative lawmaker piecing together the coalition needed to win a leadership post — especially on such short notice.
Of course, there was never any guarantee that Hensarling could win; in fact, some Republicans think McCarthy can't be beaten by anyone next week, given the short turnaround. Hensarling, had he jumped in, would have had 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," said one senior Republican aide not affiliated with any of the internal campaigns.
That said, the "Draft Hensarling" effort isn't going away. Conservatives have been pushing him for months to challenge either Boehner or Cantor in this November's elections. And those same members, while disappointed that he won't run next week, are poised to pick up their pressure campaign in the months ahead. Hensarling, in a brief interview Thursday, declined to clarify whether his decision not to run next week would apply to November's conference elections as well.
"My statement this morning speaks for itself," Hensarling said.
This story was updated with the news that Rep. Sessions had dropped his bid for majority leader.