Rep. Steve Scalise is close to clinching enough support to sew up the race for majority whip, allies of the Louisiana Republican said Thursday, aggressively dismissing the impact of Rep. Marlin Stuzman's entrance into the race hours earlier.
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.
Scalise was thought to be the favorite going head-to-head with Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, who also has declared for the race. But Stutzman's sudden candidacy complicates the math for Scalise. Stutzman has built a solid reputation in conservative circles, and could be a more attractive option to the younger Republican Study Commiitee 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.
Stutzman, according to a Republican source, also will highlight this year's vote on a flood insurance -- a bill that Scalise advocated for his Bayou constituents, but many conservatives opposed. Scalise, for his part, made no apologies for the flood insurance push. And his friends pushed back Thursday on the "debate society" argument, pointing out that Scalise's RSC has consistently moved legislation to the floor through regular order.
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.
Indeed, a Roskam aide disputed that Scalise is close to clinching the post. The winner must grab the backing of at least a majority of the 233 House Republicans who will show up to vote in closed-door balloting set for Thursday. "The numbers being floated out there are low," said Stephanie Kittredge of the amount of support she says is lining up behind her own boss. She declined to give a number.
Kittredge acknowledged that the argument made by Scalise forces that "red states" need to be representated on the House leadership team may be persuasive. But she argued that it was not relevant for this job: "The whip's job is to round up and count votes -- and not just southern votes."
Scalise and his team are focused on Stutzmam; they are already hitting him hard. One ally of the current RSC chairman pointed out that Stutzman, who was thought to be interested in the job back in 2012, didn't show up for his interview with the committee's founding members.
"Steve is close to hitting the magic number of votes he'll need," the source said, adding that Scalise hopes to have the race wrapped up by Thursday evening when lawmakers leave town for the weekend.