Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia was unanimously elected Wednesday to succeed Rep. Steve Scalise as chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee, and will bridge the gap between Scalise's departure this month and the election of a new chairman in November.
Also on Wednesday, RSC members approved a proposal that fundamentally alters the process through which the group's chairman is chosen. No longer will the former RSC chairmen — known as the "Founders" — endorse a single candidate to lead the group. Instead, beginning this year, all interested candidates will interview with the founders, and they will recommend several qualified members to be included in a group-wide vote. This rule tweak, which should save the founders from making an uncomfortable and potentially divisive internal endorsement, has been in the works for some time.
Woodall, a second-term lawmaker who has served as Scalise's right-hand man at the RSC, will take over the chairmanship effective July 16 — and has pledged not to seek a full term thereafter.
"We've got a lot of big issues coming before Congress between now and the end of the year," Woodall said after Wednesday's RSC meeting. "It's lousy that the RSC is losing leadership in the middle of the year when there's so much left to be done. But this organization is about more than one person; it's about conservative ideas. And with our vote today, we're going to make sure that those conservative ideas have a voice for the remainder of the 113th Congress."
Scalise, who won June's special election to become majority whip, assumes his leadership post July 31. That's when Majority Leader Eric Cantor will officially step down, and current Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy will slide up to replace him.
Woodall is universally well liked within the RSC, a group of more than 170 conservative House Republicans. As chairman of the group's budget and spending task force, Woodall was a natural choice to lead RSC through the final months of this Congress, which will be dominated by fiscal fights over appropriations, highway funding, and reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank.
The powerful group of former RSC chairmen huddled several weeks ago and settled on Woodall as the best candidate to succeed Scalise on an interim basis until a new chairman is elected to a full term in November.
Woodall accepted the temporary position, contingent upon a pledge not to seek a subsequent term as RSC chairman in the forthcoming 114th Congress.
"That's the understanding," Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a former RSC chairman, said at the time.
The determination not to give Woodall--or anyone else--a head start in the RSC race is consistent with the founders' attempt to level the playing field with their new rules. Members of the group had in recent years grown increasingly upset with the old election process, which they viewed as undemocratic and potentially harmful to the unity of the organization.
Those fears were realized in 2012, when the founders endorsed Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia to succeed Jordan as chairman. Scalise, who had interviewed for the job, decided to exploit a provision in the RSC bylaws that allowed him to force a runoff election by gathering signatures from 25 percent of the group's membership. What ensued was a heated head-to-head contest that divided the group and likely served as the catalyst for today's rule changes.
The conference's most conservative members rallied around Graves, whom they viewed as more ideologically pure; meanwhile Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team quietly organized support on behalf of Scalise, who ran on a platform of finding common ground with leadership. Scalise ultimately prevailed--becoming only the second member to ever successfully challenge an endorsement from the founders. (The first was Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, who in 2006 defeated Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt.)
Thanks to the rule changes, which have been pushed for months by former RSC Chairman Tom Price of Georgia, the founders are now free to endorse as many candidates as they deem qualified--while retaining the authority to weed out those members who they feel are ill-suited to the chairmanship. That said, the section of RSC bylaws allowing challengers to get onto the ballot by gathering signatures remains intact.
With Woodall promising not to run for a full term — and only a few dozen legislative days remaining between now and November's midterm elections — the focus will shift quickly to those candidates seeking the RSC chairmanship in the next Congress.
The front-runner — and perhaps prohibitive favorite — is Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who back in March told National Journal that he planned to seek the position and has been building a vote-whipping ever since. Mulvaney, like Woodall, is a member of the tea-party class of 2010 and is well-liked throughout the organization.
Mulvaney's stiffest competition was expected to come from Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, who almost ran for RSC chairman two years ago but backed out when his friend, Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, entered the race. But Stutzman, who lost last month's race for majority whip, said Wednesday that he won't run for RSC chairman and that he's whipping votes for his close friend Mulvaney.
That leaves a handful of underwhelming candidates and potential contenders.
Several names are being whispered as rivals to Mulvaney — Reps. Andy Harris of Maryland, Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming among them — but it's unclear whether any could assemble the coalition needed to defeat Mulvaney.
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas has already announced his candidacy, but he does not enjoy widespread support in the group, as demonstrated by his unsuccessful bid against Jordan for RSC chairman in 2010.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the home state of Cynthia Lummis.