Politics & Policy

Flawed Candidates Keep Majority Leader’s Race Close

Steve Scalise in front of outgoing speaker John Boehner in June 2015 (Alex Wong/Getty)

A potential nail-biter is shaping up in the race for majority leader of the House. Contributing to the suspense is the sense among GOP lawmakers that both House Budget Committee chairman Tom Price (Ga.) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) are flawed candidates.

“Personalities matter,” a Scalise supporter says pointedly to National Review.

A Price ally counters:  “We’re always looking to make sure we don’t promote someone who could embarrass us.”

Such comments underline the particular weaknesses of each candidate: Price lacks Scalise’s gregarious nature and has engaged in high-profile fights with national-security hawks over defense spending; he is not popular among House Republicans. The majority whip, on the other hand, had to apologize for speaking unwittingly to a gathering of white nationalists during his first congressional campaign. No one wants to talk about it publicly, but the issues are complicating a broader GOP conversation about how to unite the House Republican conference following House Speaker John Boehner’s unexpected resignation.

Price has a disadvantage, relative to Scalise, in that he hasn’t held an office that involved consistent collaboration with a majority of his colleagues since leading the 170-member Republican Study Committee from 2009–2010 — that is, before the Tea Party swept dozens of Republicans into office in the last two midterm elections.

#share#“Tom’s been here for a long time, and I’ve probably said two words to the guy,” says one undecided House Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I like him, but, there has to be a comfort level.” A majority leader can’t be chosen based on “tenure and how conservative you are,” he continues. “I’ve got to know that I can come up to you when the [crap]’s hitting the fan [on the House floor] and be, like, ‘Tom, listen: This is my problem with this bill’ or ‘I need you to be with me on this,’ and it not be awkward or distant, because I don’t really know you. It’s not that way with Steve.”

In the wake of the white-nationalist story, Scalise might have a more difficult time capitalizing on his reputedly superior “approachability.” It was reported in December that in 2002 he had spoken to a group with ties to David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. Republican leaders defended him, as did Louisiana Democrats such as Congressional Black Caucus member Cedric Richmond. Scalise apologized, saying that his attendance at the conference was a mistake he made only because he didn’t have staffers available to vet all the organizations he visited.

Related: La. Democrats Come to Scalise’s Defense: He’s No Racist

The undecided Republican isn’t satisfied by this explanation. “We all had no staff, once upon a time,” the congressman says. “I think that he wanted to get votes; he isn’t a bad guy . . . [but] if he really didn’t know who he was speaking in front of, that might say something, too.”

Some lawmakers trust Scalise but fear that Democratic efforts to associate Republicans with the specter of white nationalism would fatally haunt his fundraising efforts. That hasn’t been a problem in the ten months since the story broke, however. He has made 146 campaign stops in 25 states this year, his political team told The Hill, raising $3.5 million in 2015, and he has campaigned with some of the most vulnerable Republicans, such as Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Colorado’s Mike Coffman. “If you’re a good leader, you’re going to raise adequate [money],” a second Scalise supporter says. “I think all of them are able to raise the resources, given the position.”

Nevertheless, a second undecided Republican voiced the same concerns about Scalise and Price; a third demurred, choosing to “let others address that.”

The Scalise–Price bout has the makings of a proxy fight between hardline conservatives and more conventional Republicans, even though each man once chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee.

Those general questions about the prospective heirs to would-be House speaker Kevin McCarthy provide the backdrop for a more public debate about their merits and demerits. The Scalise–Price bout has the makings of a proxy fight between hardline conservatives and more conventional Republicans, even though each man once chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee. “Tom’s got a record of standing up to leadership when necessary that I don’t believe that Steve has,” a second Price backer says. “If you’re going to have McCarthy as your speaker, you need to get him paired with the most principled conservative that you can, and that’s Tom Price.”

Price’s fiscal conservatism is a double-edged sword, though. He alienated most national-security hawks in March by refusing to write a budget that increased discretionary defense spending unless at least some of the expenditure was offset by other spending cuts. His preferred proposal died on the House floor, as 139 Republicans — with the prominent support of Scalise — joined Democrats in voting against the bill. Just 105 Republicans endorsed Price’s plan.

That vote result suggests that Scalise has the inside track in the leadership race, but even some defense hawks worry that his victory would prolong the running fight between GOP leaders and backbenchers. “He was elected to whip primarily because he did have that connection to the more conservative groups,” one well-connected congressman says. “Do we want real change in leadership or do we just want to move the deck chairs around?”

Related: GOP Meeting Resolves Nothing As Leadership Fights Brew

Of course, the appetite for “real change in leadership” could be an obstacle to Kevin McCarthy’s taking over as speaker, especially if the conservative lawmakers who forced Boehner out refuse to back McCarthy, who, after all, was Boehner’s second-in-command. “McCarthy doesn’t have 218 [votes], so it’s far from clear he’ll be elected,” one House Freedom Caucus member tells NR. If he’s not, House rules allow him to finish out his term as majority leader, and the Price–Scalise race is moot.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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