No matter what happens in November’s midterm elections, Republicans are going to have to pick a new leader when the next Congress convenes. With Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement and questions about all the major candidates to replace him, the coming battle to lead the party in the House will expose all of the divisions in the party that have hampered Donald Trump’s legislative agenda for two years.
There are two candidates that most observers believe to be the frontrunners — Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise. The president has indicated he could live with either man as Republican leader in the House. The third option is Rep. Jim Jordan, the only member openly running for the top spot. He is 100% pro-Trump and has become the favorite of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
If Republicans end up in the minority, McCarthy will have a hard time convincing members that he will fight the Democrats tooth and nail to prevent Trump’s impeachment. McCarthy’s skill set is consensus building — hardly ideal when Democrats will be going for the jugular against Trump.
Another factor against electing McCarthy GOP leader is that the makeup of the GOP caucus will be decidedly smaller, and more pro-Trump.
The election is likely to produce a more conservative, pro-Trump Republican lineup in the House, as most of the GOP incumbents at risk of losing hail from moderate-leaning districts and suburbs. Their defeat would probably concentrate more power in the hands of the House Freedom Caucus and its libertarian-leaning allies in rural, traditionally Republican states who doubt McCarthy’s conservative bona fides. Those lawmakers blocked the Californian’s rise when he first reached for the speaker’s gavel three years ago.
Indeed, conservatives feel that the biggest problem the party has is that it insufficiently loyal to the president.
Conservatives say the House majority is at risk in large part because Republicans didn’t stand fully behind Trump. They fault their own side for failing to repeal “Obamacare,” build a wall along the border with Mexico and keep other campaign promises. If there’s a GOP wipeout on Election Day, Republicans will probably be eager to boot the current GOP leadership, which could give rise to Scalise or even Jordan’s unorthodox bid.
For McCarthy’s part, he’s given a ton of money to congressional candidates this cycle and has worked diligently for the better part of a year, courting conservatives by advancing some of their issues. He’s hardly a “moderate,” but would present a more moderate image for the party, which might be important if Republicans hang on to their majority by a a few seats.
Scalise is there if McCarthy falters and doesn’t figure to directly challenge the majority leader. He may end up a compromise candidate much like Paul Ryan was when Republicans booted John Boehner as speaker in 2015. There is an emotional appeal for Scalise who survived an assassination attempt at a practice for the congressional baseball game by a Bernie Sanders supporter. But some conservatives may wonder if Scalise has it in him to go hammer and tongs with Democrats if, as expected, they go after Trump’s job.
That leaves Rep. Jim Jordan, whose unorthodox campaign for the leader position has excited some conservatives.
Perhaps most unusual has been Jordan’s longshot bid. Taking a page from Trump’s playbook, Jordan has eschewed the normal path, opting for an outside campaign that’s drumming up support from conservative groups and media-friendly allies.
Jordan is a regular on Fox News, pushing the House GOP’s investigation of the Justice Department’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Alongside Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus who is also campaigning for colleagues, he is positioning the group for influence in the House.
That influence is certain to grow. Republicans had almost 50 retirements this election year and even in safe GOP districts, the candidates who will replace the retirees will be more conservative and more pro-Trump. This gives the president a better chance to advance his agenda, including building a border wall and perhaps more tax cuts.
But all bets are off if Republicans lose the House. Then, it will be a question of holding the party together as the Democrats assault not just the president, but his accomplishments as well.
There are indications that Democrats, themselves, may have their own leadership battle with the aging Nancy Pelosi unacceptable to many younger, more radical party members. The few weeks in December and early January when these elections will be decided could be an interesting spectacle as factions from both parties battle it out for supremacy.
It won’t exactly be pistols at 20 paces, but the winners in both parties will duel for the soul of America and the future of Donald Trump’s presidency.