In the race to become the next House majority whip, the magic number isn't 117 — it's 78.
Unless someone in Thursday's special election wins an outright majority of the 233 total votes cast — a prospect that appears far from certain — 78 is the number of votes that would prevent any of the three candidates from finishing last on the initial ballot, and therefore guarantee them a place on the second ballot. If there is a second round of voting, pitting two candidates head-to-head with a sudden bloc of voters released from supporting the eliminated candidate, anything can happen.
That's the case being made by supporters of Rep. Marlin Stutzman, the Indiana representative whose unexpected and late entrance into the whip's contest complicated the math for everyone involved.
Rep. Steve Scalise, the Louisianan who chairs the powerful Republican Study Committee, emerged from the weekend the same way he went in — ahead of the pack. In addition to winning an endorsement from GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Scalise is piling up support from Southern lawmakers in concert with his campaign theme: Conservatives, and Southerners, need a voice in leadership.
Behind him is Rep. Peter Roskam, the chief deputy whip from Illinois. He has the support of the GOP's establishment wing, but is attempting to expand his appeal by promising colleagues that he will "draw on relationships that transcend boundaries and groups," according to a letter sent Friday evening. Roskam's camp claims to have solid support from more than 90 members.
Pulling up the rear is Stutzman. The 37-year-old onetime farmer is not terribly well connected in the GOP Conference. He is part of a tight-knit group of House conservatives — including Reps. Tom Graves, Mick Mulvaney, and Raul Labrador, who is running for majority leader — and is using some dissatisfaction with Scalise among the conference's right flank to fuel his insurgent candidacy. According to sources in his camp, the Indiana Republican claimed upward of 50 supporters by Sunday night.
The math hardly adds up: If Scalise has more than 100 votes, Roskam more than 90, and Stutzman more than 50, that's well over 240 members — and there are only 233 in the House GOP. Because the whipping process is conducted almost exclusively behind closed doors — and the votes will be cast by secret ballot — it's nearly impossible to determine which candidate is cooking his whip books.
Still, in communicating with all three camps over the weekend, there is broad agreement that Scalise has more than 100 commitments, virtually guaranteeing him a spot on the second ballot. What's not clear is whether Scalise actually has locked up the 117 votes needed to win outright, as his supporters claim he has.
"We're over the threshold now," one House Republican who is whipping votes for Scalise said Saturday. The lawmaker asked not to be identified because he's a personal friend of Roskam's (a reminder of why Congress is so frequently compared to high school). When pressed for specifics, the member refused to provide them, but noted: "My understanding is, we are where we need to be for him to win."
With both Scalise and Roskam in the range of 100 votes, Stutzman's role appears to be that of a spoiler. But his play for the majority whip's job is real, Stutzman's allies say, and his path to victory is legitimate — albeit difficult. While he doesn't have relationships across the conference like his two competitors, Stutzman does have one key constituency in his corner: the biggest class in House Republican history.
Certainly, not every one of the 87 Republicans who were rookies in the 112th Congress will be voting for Stutzman. But the soft-spoken Indianan, who actually won a 2010 special election and arrived in Washington weeks before his classmates, could make the whip's race competitive by channeling the collective frustration felt by that class.
"We should not being having leadership elections without a 2010 participant," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a sophomore lawmaker who, like many of his classmates, feel their influence has not been on par with their size.
"The class of 2010 is looking for a candidate," added Mulvaney, who is whipping votes for Stutzman. "And the conservatives are looking for a candidate — someone other than Scalise. And that's the pathway to victory for Stutzman."
To that point, one Stutzman ally shared the list of members who led a weekend conference call on Stutzman's behalf: Mulvaney, Sean Duffy, Tom Reed, Andy Harris, and Jeff Duncan — all 2010 alumni. (Another notable deputy is Rep. Jim Jordan, the influential conservative and former RSC chair.)
"Sean Duffy — this is a center-of-right guy. He's not a moderate, but he's not Tim Huelskamp, either," the member said, alluding to the ultraconservative congressman from Kansas. "The fact that Sean Duffy is working for Stutzman, and not Scalise or Roskam, is the perfect indicator of where Stutzman's base is: the class of 2010. And it's a big, big class."
But even Stutzman's allies admit it may be too little, too late. His delay in entering the race provided Scalise and Roskam a sizable head start in securing commitments from members. And while some are open to switching teams — Mulvaney, for example, left Scalise's camp for Stutzman's — many members aren't comfortable switching sides once they've committed.
Of the lawmakers who are de-committing from one candidate, it's tough to know where they're going. While conventional wisdom held that Stutzman would have siphoned support exclusively from Scalise, there are examples to the contrary. According to sources, Rep. Steve Southerland, a junior member of leadership who initially was whipping for Roskam, has switched teams and is now supporting Stutzman.
As allegiances are exchanged and new alliances are formed, the cores of the respective teams are becoming clearer. All of the camps are anchored by one or two longtime friends of the respective congressmen. Additionally, each of the three candidates have been considering a "running mate" — that is, someone whom they would name as their chief deputy whip should they be elected. (Roskam currently serves as McCarthy's chief deputy.)
Over the weekend two of the candidates were said to have chosen a partner. Roskam, according to sources, has unofficially tapped Rep. Richard Hudson as his running mate. Scalise was rumored to have selected Rep. Aaron Schock to his ticket, though Scalise's camp emphasized that no decision has been made. In both cases, the primary candidate would seem to be searching for geographical and ideological balance. Hudson, from North Carolina, is known to be to Roskam's right; while Schock, from Illinois, is more moderate than Scalise.
All three candidates for the No. 3 job in House GOP leadership are expected to return to Capitol Hill on Monday to continue whipping votes. They might not have much company, however; the House is out of session today and the week's first votes will be cast Tuesday.