Politics & Policy

If Favorites Fall, Watch These Dark-Horse Candidates for House Speaker

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Mark Wilson/Getty)

The favorite candidates for speaker of both the House Republican establishment and the House Freedom Caucus are looking more like lost causes. Paul Ryan, the widely respected former vice-presidential nominee, still won’t change his mind and commit to running, and friends say he worries that becoming speaker could be a form of career suicide. Representative Jim Jordan, the founder of the House Freedom Caucus, says that his group won’t get on board for Ryan unless he agrees to reduce the speaker’s powers.

Jordan told Fox News Sunday that his group’s candidate is still Representative Daniel Webster, the 66-year-old from Florida who served as speaker of the Florida House in the 1990s before being elected to Congress in 2010.

“Our position right now is we know Daniel Webster,” Jordan told Chris Wallace on Fox. “We know he’s done this in Florida, where he took a model that was so controlled, top-down, centralized kind of power model. He diffused that kind of power and empowered the members. So I think that’s the model we want. I think whoever the next speaker is, Paul Ryan or anyone else, has to go to that kind of model.”

But the idea of Ryan as speaker is meeting resistance from conservatives who recall his support of comprehensive immigration reform, the bank bailouts that followed the 2008 financial crisis, and the pro-union legislation that pleased constituents in his blue-collar district in Wisconsin.

RELATED: OK, Let’s Fight: The Free-for-All over Choosing a New House Speaker Isn’t Chaos; It’s Democracy

As for Webster, he suffered a cruel twist of fate last week, the day after Representative Kevin McCarthy withdrew from the race for speaker and threw the contest wide open. On Friday, as part of a three-year-long legal battle over gerrymandering, a Florida state judge issued a new congressional map for the state. The new map favors Democrats and is highly likely to be adopted by the state’s liberal supreme court. The Orlando Sentinel reports that “the changes turn Webster’s District 10 seat from a 4-percentage-point advantage for Republicans over Democrats among registered voters to an 18 percentage-point Democratic advantage.” 

The new Webster district goes from one that Romney carried by eight points in 2012 to one that voted for Obama 61 percent to 39 percent. Since Webster won in 2012 by only four points, even he has acknowledged that the new district lines will make it impossible for him to mount a successful run. A neighboring district on one side is also heavily Democratic. The seat on his other side is held by Republican Richard Nugent, and competing there would entail a long, bitter primary to win over an almost completely new constituency. He could even be vulnerable to a challenge from the right: The American Conservative Union gives Webster a lifetime score of only 79 for his time in Congress — in the bottom half of House Republicans. Should Webster become speaker, he would probably become a lame duck in short order.

EDITORIAL: Paul Ryan Should Run

Increasingly, House Republicans who think that Ryan won’t run and that Webster can’t win are turning to other members who are respected and could win the votes of 218 GOP members. That number represents a majority of the House, and it’s the minimum any GOP candidate for speaker would have to win on the House floor to avoid relying on Democratic votes to win.

#share#Two names keep cropping up in conversations with GOP members: Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Representative Peter Roskam of Illinois.

Blackburn is currently the vice chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a frequent spokesman for the party on TV. A former businesswoman, Blackburn was an anti-tax tea-party-type candidate before there was a Tea Party. She led the fight against creating a state income tax in the Tennessee state senate in 2002 and swept into Congress in 2004 after winning that fight. While staunchly conservative, she maintains good relations with moderate members; and if elected, she would become the first woman to hold the top leadership job in either the House or Senate.

RELATED: The House Republican Civil War

Roskam is a veteran of Illinois’s rough-and-tumble politics. A former aide to the late Representative Henry Hyde, who was a pro-life champion in Congress, Roskam served in the Illinois Senate with Barack Obama for four years and frequently tangled with him. “I understand how he operates, and I can negotiate with him,” he tells me. Roskam was elected to Congress in 2006, has the goal of joining the leadership, and has already served as chief deputy House whip. He has taken a leading role in pursuing scandals in the Internal Revenue Service and has worked on measures to make health care more affordable. (My National Review colleague Joel Gehrke just did a nice profile of Roskam’s leadership chances: “Peter Roskam: The Next-Next Speaker?”)

#related#The job of House speaker is a political position that requires the balancing of various factions within the majority party. If Ryan became speaker, he would begin with a wealth of goodwill, but, ultimately, his strengths are in reforming the nation’s dangerously bankrupt entitlement programs. Webster, the favorite of the House Freedom Caucus, was speaker of the Florida house nearly 20 years ago and since then has consistently been a weak political fundraiser — and fundraising is one of the speaker’s key chores.

The more time that elapses from Kevin McCarthy’s bombshell departure from the speaker’s race, the more it looks as if GOP members are coming to realize that no savior or simple solution will heal their internal divisions. That’s why more and more of them are starting to look at members such as Blackburn and Roskam, who both want the job and are likely to have the skills to carry it off.

— John Fund is National Review Online’s national-affairs correspondent.

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