Politics & Policy

In the Lead

A user's guide to House leadership elections.

House Republicans enter today’s leadership elections with clear choices. There are no slates, but the candidates seem to be drawing from similar coalitions and members seem to be falling into two camps.  There are those who are loyal to the incumbent candidates and who will back the tried-and-true. Some of these members are not especially enthusiastic about their choices, mindful that it was these leaders who sat atop the majority that was repudiated by the voters last week. But they would prefer to stick with what they know over what they don’t. The challengers offer fresh faces and promises to return the party back to its conservative roots — but also largely untested leadership skills.

Elected majority leader in February to replace Tom DeLay, John Boehner is seeking to keep his leader post in the minority. Boehner’s camp has worked the inside game hard, reaching out, with the help of his closest supporters, to every member and incoming member of the House GOP conference. He’s done few media appearances besides a blogger chat and a handful of op-eds stating his case. As with the other candidates vying for leadership positions, Boehner has studiously avoided releasing names or numbers of supporters. He has, however, had groups of key supporters send “Dear Colleague” letters under their names to demonstrate his backing (including one signed by Rep. Steve Buyer — who hails from the same state as Boehner’s opponent). Boehner allies on and off Capitol Hill confidently assure that they have the needed votes in hand.

Boehner’s backers, the ones we know of, include many similar faces from those who were among his kitchen cabinet for his majority-leader bid earlier this year. It’s a combination of his midwestern allies, old colleagues from his time chairing the Education & Workforce Committee, and longstanding friends from Boehner’s 14 years in the House and last stint in the Gingrich-era leadership.

Republican Study Committee (RSC) chairman Mike Pence is mounting a conservative challenge to Boehner. Pence has emerged in recent years as a vocal leader of House conservatives, not afraid to speak out when he sees his party’s drifting from its fiscal moorings.

He’s taken his campaign a bit broader than Boehner and has won enthusiastic support from many right-leaning bloggers and conservative activists of the Hill. Widely viewed as the underdog, Pence’s camp says they’ve picked up backing in recent days from more centrist members of the GOP conference and that many undecideds remain. “Don’t write our obituary yet,” advises one Pence aide. This same source reminds that Rep. John Shadegg went into the majority-leader contest earlier this year with only 17 commitments, but received 40 votes on the first round of balloting.

Pence’s inner circle is comprised largely of his ideological soul-mates from the RSC.  Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) is running the campaign and is being assisted by members including conservative Arizonan’s Jeff Flake and Trent Franks.

By all accounts, the contest for minority whip is much closer than the Leader race. Roy Blunt currently holds the position and is facing a challenge from Arizona Rep. John Shadegg. Much like the Boehner-Pence contest, the whip race is largely about Republicans choosing between a leader they know and one they don’t so well. The key difference is that Blunt has held his post going back to the DeLay era, whereas Boehner only took over his after DeLay’s departure. Blunt has sought to reaffirm his commitment to reform and renewal with a series of speeches and media appearances before conservative audiences. Shadegg’s camp, however, is confident that if Boehner wins, members will want to include at least one new face among the top two slots in their leadership. They’ve also done significant media outreach.

As a source close to Shadegg put it, “Roy Blunt has been a member of leadership for eight years if you take into account his time as chief deputy whip under Tom DeLay. Members realize that the voters want change and Blunt has had his chance to lead.”

Both candidates addressed the moderate Tuesday Group and RSC Wednesday, and each spoke to the full conference yesterday in advance of today’s vote.

Blunt is banking on a core group of leadership loyalists who he’s worked with to win votes during his time in the leadership. It’s a largely conservative group, but perhaps not as purist as the group Shadegg has assembled, many of whom are also supporting Pence.

The wild card in this contest remains the persistent rumors about a nomination from the floor of a third candidate. Most frequently heard as a target of this draft is Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), who happens to be both Blunt’s campaign manager and his chief deputy whip. Cantor’s office has shot down the possibility, though, saying that the Virginian “won’t be on the ballot” today.

Also on the ballot will be lower-profile contests for Conference chair, Policy chair, Conference vice chair, Conference secretary, and National Republican Congressional Committee chair.

Stay tuned to The Corner throughout the day for continued reporting and analysis.

 – Jonathan Martin is NRO’s political reporter.

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