The doors flung open and a steely-eyed Steve Scalise emerged, looking part-politician and part-prize fighter, "Eye of the Tiger" blasting from behind him, as he shuffled his feet and made his way to the ring.
Well, it wasn't exactly a ring; the bout was to be held inside the Ways and Means Committee hearing room in the Longworth House Office Building. But the opulent setting did little to alter the appearance of an imminent brawl. Scalise and his army of dark-suited supporters had marched to Longworth together across an empty street, and upon arriving they seemed to be searching for a rival gang to rumble with.
The main event was drawing all the attention, but as always, there would first be an undercard. Ironically, in this case, the less contentious contest was for the bigger prize: the majority leader's office being vacated by Eric Cantor.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the odds-on favorite whose experience had prepared him perfectly for this moment, squared off with Rep. Raul Labrador, the scrappy underdog who never had a chance. Each employed a popular conservative to deliver a nominating address—Rep. Tom Graves was in McCarthy's corner while Rep. Jim Jordan sided with Labrador—and then some seconding speeches were given for good measure.
It was never a fair fight. Jordan gave a strong speech, arguing that "people are scared" and looking for bold leadership. It captivated the room and inspired fleeting illusions of victory. But an upset wasn't meant to be. McCarthy won—probably by knockout. Though some members pushed for the tally to be released, the proposal was dismissed, and Labrador in an act of sportsmanship asked that the record reflect a unanimous win for McCarthy.
The comity wouldn't last. McCarthy's win meant his job, majority whip, would soon be vacated. This was the contest everyone came to see. Three candidates—Reps. Scalise of Louisiana, Peter Roskam of Illinois, and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana—would compete for the post, but all eyes were on Scalise. He had been the favorite throughout, amassing an enormous team of supporters and running a well-oiled whipping machine that saw lawmakers making midnight calls and aides with clipboards counting heads at Thursday's meeting.
Scalise was confident, and everyone knew it. The night before he'd dined with dozens of supporters at a Louisiana fish joint, thanking them for their tireless work and handing out customized baseball bats to commemorate their impending victory. The bats, made by a company in Scalise's backyard, were engraved: "Bring the Wood...Scalise Whip Team 2014...Geaux!!!"
No one doubted Scalise was the front-runner coming in. The only question was whether he could win a majority—116 of the 231 votes being cast—to claim an outright victory and avoid a second ballot. Roskam and Stutzman knew they couldn't beat him initially; their only hope was to force a head-to-head runoff, and then hope to steal a huge bloc of supporters from the eliminated last-place candidate.
They were nominated in alphabetical order. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who's leading a select committee investigation on the events in Benghazi, praised his panelist, Roskam, as a collaborator who brings members together. Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, a soft-spoken conservative who commands respect throughout the conference, vouched for the personal decency of his roommate, Scalise. Finally, Rep. Tom Reed, an alumnus of Stutzman's class of 2010, touted the Hoosier's commitment to an open policy-making process—and drew the loudest cheers of the afternoon by saluting Cantor, their outgoing leader.
But the strength of Scalise's coalition was too much to overcome. As evidenced by his choice of secondary speakers—Kristi Noem, proving his popularity among high-profile Republican women; and Bill Shuster, a key member of the up-for-grabs Pennsylvania delegation—Scalise had every demographic covered. Southerners, women, Midwesterners, conservatives, moderates—he won them all.
Team Scalise smelled victory in the air. A small legion of aides and supporters—including volunteers who hadn't gotten paid to work late nights and long hours on Scalise's behalf—crowded the hallways outside the Longworth meeting room, cameras in hand to document the moment, waiting to explode.
Soon they got their chance. A massive cheer went up inside the room as Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers announced that Scalise had won the election outright, and moments later, Scalise's supporters erupted in the hallway.
Republican leadership had a new top three.
McCarthy and Scalise took turns at the podium behind closed doors, the leader-elect and whip-elect addressing their colleagues for the first time from their new perches. Then they broke through a media gauntlet and executed a brief press conference, making promises and thanking colleagues and smiling for the cameras. It ended abruptly and the victors went their separate ways, trailed by reporters asking questions about what comes next and whether they're worried about the upcoming round of conference elections in November.
The smiles disappeared. That's the thing about heavyweight bouts—there's always a rematch right around the corner.
This article appears in the June 20, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.