What Happened Inside the House GOP Leadership Election

Midnight calls. Headcounting by clipboard. Speeches to secure every key vote. Scalise’s route to the win showed his skill as a whip.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) (L) speaks to members of the media as Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) (R) listens after a leadership election at a House Republican Conference meeting June 19, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House GOPs have picked Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as the new House majority leader and Scalise as the new majority whip. 
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
June 19, 2014, 4:34 p.m.

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.

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