Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina will seek the chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee in the 114th Congress, National Journal has learned, the first significant measure of internal campaigning amid a season marked by quiet, cautious jostling for positions in the next session.
And, in a separate development with longer-lasting ramifications for the 40-year-old conservative caucus, the "founders" committee — comprised of all former RSC chairmen still serving in Congress — is contemplating sweeping changes to the system long used to elect the group's leader.
Traditionally, all RSC hopefuls interview with the founders, after which the group offers a collective endorsement of one candidate. If a rival objects, they can challenge the endorsement by collecting signatures from 25 percent of RSC's membership, forcing a runoff election. (This was done successfully by Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas in 2006, and by current Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana in 2012.)
Mulvaney, a sophomore lawmaker known for his sharp tongue and quick wit, has long been viewed as a favorite to succeed Scalise — partly because of his relationship with some of the founders, including Hensarling and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. Mulvaney's path to the chairmanship could be complicated, however, if the group's bylaws are changed.
According to several sources with direct knowledge of the deliberations, the founders are considering a new system under which they would vet candidates and recommend certain people to be included in a caucus-wide vote — without endorsing anyone. Nothing has been finalized, sources cautioned, but the goal would be to avoid having the group's leaders taking sides in divisive runoff elections.
In an interview, Mulvaney paid little mind to the potential rule changes, focusing instead on the plans he's making to lead the caucus of more than 175 members. Mulvaney acknowledged that preliminary conversations are being had with colleagues about timing and strategy, though he cautioned that it's premature to begin campaigning in earnest.
"It's too early to start organizing. It's just not appropriate to start doing that yet," Mulvaney said. "But all the guys know."
By "all the guys," Mulvaney means his clique of House conservatives — members like Jordan, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, and fellow South Carolinian Trey Gowdy. Because Mulvaney has established tight personal bonds with colleagues spanning the conservative spectrum, from former RSC chairmen to veteran steering-committee members to upstart libertarians, his base of support is expected to be deep and diverse.
"I think he'd be a really good RSC chairman," said Labrador, one of Mulvaney's closest friends — and, notably, someone also mentioned frequently as a potential Scalise successor.
Labrador declined to comment on whether Mulvaney's candidacy would deter him from pursuing the RSC job, though those close to Labrador have said it's unlikely he would compete with his friend for the same gig. At the same time, friendship seemingly won't affect the calculations of Rep. Marlin Stutzman. The Indiana lawmaker, who nearly ran in 2012, called Mulvaney a "buddy" — but sounded prepared to challenge him anyway.
"I'm strongly leaning toward it," Stutzman said of the RSC race. "I've been reaching out to folks to see what they want out of RSC leadership."
Stutzman, who said his friend Mulvaney would make "a great RSC chair," noted that he won't make his own decision until summertime. And, if he does run against Mulvaney, "I think it's healthy to have competition," Stutzman said with a smile.
There are, meanwhile, other lawmakers rumored to be interested in the position. One is Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, who was endorsed in 2012 by the RSC's council of former chairmen only to later lose a runoff to Scalise. Graves became something of a conservative martyr after that 2012 race, which saw GOP leadership officials whip votes on behalf of Scalise, whom they saw as a more conflict-averse choice to lead the caucus.
Graves, then, remains an intriguing option for some conservatives. Unfortunately for them, Graves has "no interest" in running another RSC race, he said Wednesday. "No interest whatsoever," he added.
Another prospective candidate is Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, who, perhaps by nature of his close friendship with Scalise, is seen as someone who could continue the current chairman's strategy of "putting points on the board" without picking fights with GOP leadership.
Flores, though, said he hasn't given much thought to the race. And while he acknowledged that he could be interested — especially depending on the other candidates — Flores said he wouldn't start campaigning until August anyway. "Candidly, I think it's premature to be jockeying for different positions," he said.
Other names, such as Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, are also tossed around. It's still early, and other candidates could emerge. But at this point, even with the RSC election not slated until after the November midterms, the contest already seems to be narrowing to two candidates: Mulvaney and Stutzman.
And there isn't a clear favorite.
"It would be a whale of a race," one senior Republican observed.
Graves, a friend of both Stutzman and Mulvaney, said most conservatives would be happy with either one heading the RSC. "They're both quality guys, and they could both be great leaders."
They would certainly present a contrast in style. Stutzman is soft-spoken and rarely bombastic, whereas Mulvaney is known to wear his emotions on his suit sleeve. Thursday morning, after House GOP leadership surprised members by passing a controversial bill by voice vote, Mulvaney exclaimed to multiple reporters: "Bullshit!"
Indeed, Mulvaney's passion — and his penchant for confrontation — could prove risky in the RSC race. He was one of 12 Republicans who refused to vote for Boehner's reelection as speaker in 2012 — a fact that some Boehner loyalists, even within the RSC, never will forget. At the same time, Mulvaney was celebrated in the conference as perhaps the most vocal critic of some conservative outside groups — Heritage Action chief among them — that were taking "inconsistent" positions that splintered congressional Republicans and disrupted conservative policy goals.
Mulvaney said these spats with conservative groups have been healthy for the movement, and rejected speculation that he nurtures a personal rivalry with Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham. "I actually like Mike Needham," Mulvaney said. "I go to Mike Needham's house and drink beer. His wife beat me in Connect Four. So no, that relationship is very close."
Still, it's evident the South Carolinian prides himself on being an independent voice — someone capable of clashing with House leadership one day and tea-party groups the next. Mulvaney won't let himself be defined by outside forces — and that's exactly the pitch he's planning to make to his colleagues.
"It's going to be the RSC that defines what 'conservative' means in this town," Mulvaney said. "Nobody else."