The House leadership election is still weeks away, but the action has already been fast and furious. After Reps. Mike Pence and Jerry Lewis withdrew their names from consideration, pretty much everyone declared it a two-man race–between acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt and Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner. Boehner has campaigned more publicly, issuing a 37-page document outlining his vision for the GOP. Blunt has worked the inside game and projected the image of a confident frontrunner. Monday afternoon, Rich Lowry relayed a message from the Blunt camp: “We are getting close. He’s making his calls and getting close to wrapping this up. It could happen as early as tonight.”
But it turns out there is still wrapping to do. As Tuesday went by, the number of congressmen pledging support to either camp seemed to stall out, indicating that neither candidate was in position to sweep the race quickly. Rep. Jeff Flake, a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told NRO that he and Rep. Charles Bass were circulating a letter to their colleagues asking them not to make commitments to Blunt or Boehner until either man promised to provide specifics about how he would restore the GOP as the party of integrity and fiscal responsibility. (You can find the letter here.)
And another name has been edging into discussion of the race–that of Arizona conservative John Shadegg. “To say it’s a two-man race is just premature given the nature of what’s going on,” Flake says. “John Shadegg hasn’t removed himself from the race, he just hasn’t been actively campaigning as hard. Three weeks from now, as this Abramoff thing continues to unfold, we might find ourselves saying, ‘Maybe we didn’t get it.’ We need not just new leaders, but a course correction here.”
The implication is that if neither Blunt nor Boehner can satisfy conservatives who are fed up with the status quo of ethical problems and out-of-control spending, they will try to draft Shadegg–who told the New York Sun that he is going to wait and see what kind of reforms the two frontrunners offer before considering a serious run.
Why do conservatives in the House like Shadegg? For one thing, he’s among the most consistently conservative members of the House Republican conference. Shadegg, a member of the freshman class of ‘94, has a lifetime 98 rating from the American Conservative Union (compared to 94 for Blunt and Boehner) and an “A” rating from the National Taxpayers Union (whereas Blunt and Boehner both scored “B”). Most important though, given the GOP’s current addiction to wasteful spending, is his spot on the Citizens Against Government Waste House Scorecard: His lifetime score ranks 3 out of 436 representatives listed (Boehner is 91; Blunt is 136, which puts him closer to the Dems than to Shadegg).
He is also relatively untouched by the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal. The Democrats appear to have taken their best shot at him back in November when they alleged that his opposition to Indian casino gambling could be interpreted as support for some Abramoff-connected tribes. Shadegg responded, “I have never met or spoken to Jack Abramoff. I have never written any sort of letter on his behalf, and I have never received any campaign contributions from him. I have been an outspoken opponent of Indian casino gambling throughout my public life, and have spoken out repeatedly on the issue. Because of this firm belief, I have signed letters and made statements opposing the expansion of Indian gambling at every opportunity, and will continue to do so.”
Symbolically, Shadegg has a powerful appeal for Republicans who feel the party has become too comfortable with the perks of power and who hope this leadership race will lead to a renewal of conservative values. He grew up in Arizona, where his father worked as a campaign manager for conservative icon Barry Goldwater. He was elected in the historic 1994 congressional elections that gave Republicans a majority in the House for the first time since 1954. And despite making principled votes against some of the last leadership’s legislative priorities–like the budget-busting Medicare prescription drug plan–he has retained enough goodwill in the conference to attain the chairmanship of the House Republican Policy Committee–the fifth-ranking position in the House Leadership.
“I don’t know whether he’s running or not, but I think he’d be a very strong candidate,” Club for Growth President Pat Toomey, a former three-term congressman from Pennsylvania, tells NRO. “Roy Blunt and John Boehner and John Shadegg are all good men, but I think politically, Roy’s biggest liability is that he’s too closely associated with the status quo. Boehner represents a break from the status quo, but John Shadegg could really galvanize conservatives and make this a very interesting race.”
Flake tells NRO that he and his fellow Republican Study Committee members plan to “keep our powder dry” until they see what kind of reforms Blunt and Boehner are willing to offer. But he says too much is at stake to commit to one or the other before one offers a specific plan for restoring conservative values to the GOP.
“If we want leverage, now’s the time to exercise it,” Flake says. “Despite what either [Blunt or Boehner] say right now, I don’t think either think they’re close to having it locked up.” He counts conservatives’ inability to enact budget reforms in the past as one of many reasons to consider this leadership choice very carefully.
“With the previous leadership, we beat our heads against the wall on budget reform and they opposed us lock, stock and barrel every time,” he says. “When we finally got some of the proposed conference rules to a vote, we were opposed on every one of them. Now is the time to sit down with the two of them and ask if they will support earmark reform and budget reform in general.”
The next couple of weeks in the House might be more exciting than we thought.
–Stephen Spruiell reports on the media for National Review Online’s Media Blog.