House conservatives fretted their failure to recruit Rep. Jeb Hensarling into this week's Republican leadership race, but their misery might not last very long.
Hensarling, the popular Texan who passed on the chance to challenge Rep. Kevin McCarthy in Thursday's special election, appears poised to run for one of the top two leadership positions—either speaker or majority leader—in November, according to multiple sources close to the congressman.
"He sounds like he's ready to run in the fall," said a Republican source who has been speaking with Hensarling for months about an internal campaign.
Conservatives have long been pressuring Hensarling to seek a leadership spot in November, when Republican officials will hold their regularly scheduled elections for positions in the next Congress. Those members pounced when Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his primary last week, pleading with Hensarling to run for majority leader right then and there. He said he would "prayerfully" consider doing so, but friends of the Financial Services chairman knew he wouldn't bite.
In truth, Hensarling allies explain, he had been taking seriously the encouragement to run in November. But he needed to go through an exhaustive process—meeting with advisers and colleagues to discuss strategy, and more important, discussing the decision with his family. That process, Hensarling always thought, would not need to commence until late summer or early fall.
But then Cantor lost. And that, according to several close friends, forced Hensarling last week to confront a host of questions, both personal and professional, that he otherwise would not have dealt with until September or October. Specifically, Hensarling has long worried how a top leadership job would force him to spend more time on the fundraising circuit and less time with his wife and two young children.
After close consultation with his family and friends last week, Hensarling surprised those close to him by suggesting that his obstacles—which they thought were prohibitive to his seeking a top leadership post—were overcome in the deliberation process.
"Jeb knew there would be a lot of stoplights in front of him in considering a leadership run," said a friend of Hensarling's who spoke extensively with him last week. "But a lot of those lights he thought would be red, let's just say they are now blinking yellow at worst—and probably green."
Hensarling released a statement last week announcing that he would not challenge McCarthy for majority leader, saying it was "not the right office at the right time for me and my family." He refused to answer questions about whether that meant he was ruling out a run this fall.
"My statement this morning speaks for itself," he told National Journal later that day.
But it did nothing of the sort. And in fact, people close to him started reading between the lines of that statement—"not the right office at the right time"—and wondered if Hensarling was up to something. Maybe he didn't want to challenge McCarthy for leader this week, they whispered, because his grand plan was to challenge Speaker John Boehner in November.
"I think he's going to run in November," a House Republican and longtime Hensarling ally said this week. "And if he runs, he runs for the top spot."
Whether Hensarling seeks any leadership position remains to be seen. And it's far from certain that Boehner can be defeated in the fall—if he even decides to run again.
But Hensarling's apparent interest, combined with an empty summertime schedule conducive to internal campaigning, had plenty of members buzzing about the next round of leadership elections before Thursday's contests were even complete.
Still, the results of Thursday's special election—McCarthy's ascension to majority leader and Rep. Steve Scalise's victory in the whip's race—demonstrate the importance of timing and organization. Both McCarthy and Scalise were prepared to seek a promotion, and neither wasted a moment before jumping at the opportunity in front of them.
That lesson was not lost on GOP lawmakers. Indeed, some Republicans, even those who were unhappy with Thursday's results, expressed skepticism that a shake-up could come later this year.
"This was our best shot to change leadership—not November," said Rep. Justin Amash, who voted against Boehner in 2013 and whose closest friend in Congress, Rep. Raul Labrador, lost to McCarthy on Thursday.
For "movement" conservatives—those aligned with the tea party and grassroots advocacy groups—the search for a candidate to vault into the top tier of House Republican leadership always narrows to two lawmakers: Hensarling and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. Both are considered ideologically pure. Both are former chairmen of the Republican Study Committee. And both are respected throughout the House GOP.
But Hensarling has two distinct advantages: He is Southern, adding geographical diversity to a leadership team that lacked it until Scalise's win Thursday; and he is considered more electable than Jordan in a conference-wide vote.
Of course, there's another critical difference: Hensarling is ambitious and has already served as the No. 4 in Republican leadership, while Jordan is content as a rank-and-file member and has been emphatic that a leadership job "isn't me."
Hensarling is the target, and conservatives have played the long game in luring him toward a leadership battle. They have applied soft yet steady pressure, letting the Texan know that he's got plenty of time to decide, but that he's their No. 1 choice. The recruiters are so serious that they regularly reach out to Hensarling's mentor, former Sen. Phil Gramm, hoping he can talk Hensarling into a leadership bid.
"I tell them all the time: He doesn't want it," Gramm said of his communication with the conservative recruiters over the past several months. "And they say, 'We know. That's why we want him."