The media has been buzzing non-stop about the upset loss of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to a dark horse primary challenger, but his incipient removal by a Far Right candidate has created a chain reaction that risks losing the Far Right a place at the Republican leadership table. With Cantor gone, his position as the Republicans’ number two man is very nearly a lock for California Republican Kevin McCarthy. While the tea party hopes to grab McCarthy’s house Republican whip seat as it opens up, a strong moderate challenger is gathering votes and a spoiler candidate may split the right wing of the party, a situation that could freeze the Tea Party out of leadership entirely.
As the party in the majority, the Republicans’ leadership consists of three prime positions. At the top there is the Speaker of the House, a spot held by John Boehner. Under that is the majority leader, the post held by Eric Cantor, at least for a little while longer. Third in line is house whip, a position made more recognizable by the Kevin Spacey character Frank Underhill in “House of Cards.” Non-fictionally, the Republican house whip position is currently held by Kevin McCarthy.
Party leadership positions are not picked by votes by the public, but chosen in closed door meetings by votes of the sitting house membership. This means that the politics of party leadership succession are less often about public popularity and more often about personality, deal-making and the party membership’s individual self-interest. One former House Republican, now senator, Mark Steven Kirk, described leadership races as “very prime ministerial,” in a reference to the top rank in parliamentary governments. Kirk claims that past helpfulness and expected future returns vis-à-vis re-election dominate decision making.
The Republican top man, Speaker of the House John Boehner, is not going anywhere. Although Boehner is hardly at the left of the Republican Party, he is from the purple state of Ohio and has been attacked by the Far Right for failing to win more fights against Obama and the Democrats. Current number three, Kevin McCarthy, is from the blue state of California thus viewed with deep suspicion by the tea party, however he is seen as a shoe-in to grab the soon-to-be-vacated number two spot, the majority leader position. He has only one announced challenger, Congressman Raul Labrador, but Labrador shows little sign of support and admits openly that his run has as much to do with making a personal statement as hopes for victory. All of the above means that if Southern Republicans and the tea party want to avoid being frozen out of House Republican leadership, they need to grab the whip seat as McCarthy leaves it.
The Tea Party is hardly out of the fight. Far Right Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise is in a strong position to take the whip seat. His people claim to have locked in at least 100 of the needed 117 votes from the Republican Caucus. Close behind Scalise, however, is Congressman Peter Roskam who claims to have support from at least 90 of the remaining members of the caucus. Roskam is a more moderate congressman from Illinois, politically similar to the current leadership and not as closely tied to the tea party. Playing the spoiler is Indiana Congressman Merlin Stutzman. Stutzman is seen to be drawing votes away from both of the lead candidates. Roskam’s team, at least, is not too proud to admit that they are campaigning in Stutzman’s back yard, hoping to grab those votes if Stutzman gets eliminated for a second round of voting, as will occur if none of the three get the required 117 votes in the first round.
While Scalise is still a slight favorite, and his sub-Mason/Dixon address and tea party friendly voting record will serve him well with the base, he is by no means a lock. As Cantor’s primary loss has shown, there is no room for overconfidence in American politics. If Roskam’s pragmatism wins him a few more votes, or if Stutzman’s supporters swing Roskam’s way, the tea party and the far right of the republican base may be frozen out of the House leadership’s top three spots completely.
By Evan Prieskop