Five contenders for two positions in House Republican leadership will state their cases to a closed-door meeting of GOP lawmakers Wednesday morning, affording the candidates their first — and only — opportunity to sell themselves to the entire conference before Thursday's elections.
The auditions will likely prove more consequential in the race for majority whip than in the contest to replace Eric Cantor as majority leader. Kevin McCarthy, the current majority whip, is the overwhelming favorite to replace his best friend as the House GOP's No. 2.
Tellingly, McCarthy has said little publicly to convince members of his candidacy, relying instead on dozens of private meetings with colleagues and his professional vote-counting operation to get the job done.
Asked what his pitch will be to Republicans in Wednesday's meeting, McCarthy told National Journal: "We don't pitch." Asked to elaborate on how he would sell his candidacy, McCarthy replied: "Just talk to them."
It's a stark contrast to the approach taken by Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, the conservative underdog who is challenging McCarthy head-on. Unlike McCarthy, Labrador does not enjoy relationships across the GOP Conference (and some of his supporters could ask for a delay in the leadership elections to help Labrador build a base, but it's not likely to happen). Because of that, he has undertaken a public campaign to win supporters — sending a letter to colleagues arguing that "Americans are looking for a change in the status quo," and using the media to convey his pledge of bringing a bottom-up approach to the GOP leadership team.
A similar message is being pushed by Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana in the race for majority whip. Stutzman, like Labrador, is a decided underdog — and also a member of the wave class of 2010. Stutzman is attempting to tap into the collective frustration felt by that group, many of whom feel they are underrepresented in leadership and have little voice in the policy-making process.
"We ran on a promise to find solutions to the problems that have plagued Washington for so many years. We've rolled up our sleeves, learned the ropes, and worked as a team with the entire conference to get many valuable things done," Stutzman wrote in a letter to colleagues Monday aimed specifically at his 2010 classmates. "However, the more familiar we've become with the process, the more I have personally seen specific things that could be improved."
The front-runner in the whip's race, Rep. Steve Scalise, is also arguing that leadership does not appropriately reflect the composition of the conference — but in a very different way. Scalise, the Republican Study Committee chairman who hails from Louisiana, is selling colleagues on the idea that leadership needs a "red-state conservative" to rectify its ideological and geographical imbalance. That argument seems to be resonating among members; Scalise is running ahead of the competition (though his candidacy could be derailed if he doesn't win an outright majority of votes on the first ballot).
The man who hopes to force Scalise to a second ballot, Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, is not running his campaign as a rebuke of leadership. That's because Roskam, as the current chief deputy whip, is part of that team. Instead he is casting himself as someone who can unite a fractured conference, arguing that he possesses the skills and experience needed to rally House Republicans around a common purpose.
"By definition, the whip job is collaborative, and has to draw on relationships that transcend boundaries and groups," Roskam wrote in a letter to GOP lawmakers Friday. "At this tumultuous time for our conference, I think it is more important to have the skills necessary to line up votes than to check a geographical box."
Roskam realizes he's lagging behind Scalise, his supporters say, but is keeping the campaign in perspective. "If I can't whip the votes to win this election, then I don't deserve to be the whip," Roskam told his friends on Tuesday, according to Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich.
It's no accident that Roskam's argument is a direct rebuttal to Scalise's. Roskam knows that he must hold Scalise, whose team boasts more than 100 ironclad commitments, under the "magic number" of 117 votes.
If Scalise hits 117, he's got an outright majority and wins the whip race. But if he secures fewer than 117 on the first ballot, the third-place contestant — widely expected to be Stutzman — will be eliminated. The top two finishers will then go head-to-head, competing for the newly released voters whose candidate failed to advance. That scenario could favor Roskam, who has been working Stutzman's supporters hard by tapping into some disillusionment with Scalise's leadership of the RSC.
Scalise, aware that he may not prevail initially, has been scrambling to shore up support on the second ballot, according to sources in his camp. "Every call Steve makes, he's asking: "˜Will you be with me on the first ballot?' " said a House Republican who is whipping for Scalise. "And, if they say no, he's asking: "˜Well, could you be with me on a second ballot?' "
The competition to win toss-up voters on a potential second ballot seems likely to hinge on Stutzman, whose base of support is the class of 2010. Those sophomore lawmakers are aware that they could determine the outcome of the election. In fact, Rep. Austin Scott, the 2010 class president, called for a meeting of those members Tuesday night.
The other significant voting bloc being targeted by whip candidates is the 13-member Pennsylvania GOP delegation, which may choose to vote together. Scalise is said to be targeting Rep. Joe Pitts, the delegation's senior-most Republican, to steer the group into his camp.