House Republicans are electing a new set of leaders Wednesday to oversee their transformation from an ideologically diverse majority power to an increasingly conservative minority in the next session of Congress.
Much of the tension in the fight over who will replace retiring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., deflated after Republicans lost more than 30 seats in the midterm election last week, flipping control to the Democrats in January. Only two of the current GOP leaders are running for top slots in the minority next year and only one of those jobs is contested.
Instead, Republicans are jockeying behind the scenes to be the top GOP members on key committees that will be tasked with defending President Trump against an onslaught of investigations by House Democrats.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the only current leader facing a challenge to keep his job in the minority. He announced his bid in a letter circulated on election night among GOP members. In the letter, McCarthy argued that he is best positioned to lead Republicans as Democrats try to dismantle their legislative achievements.
“We need to lay the groundwork to regain the majority so that we can continue working alongside President Trump to fulfill our promise to fundamentally change Washington,” McCarthy said in his pitch to members. “I helped build a majority from a deeper hole than this and I have what it takes to do it again.”
McCarthy is running against hard-line conservative Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, for the top GOP leadership slot. Jordan is the former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly 40 House GOP members on the right flank of the conference. He also has support from some outside advocacy groups, but only incoming GOP members and those who were re-elected to another term vote for leadership positions.
Jordan told House Republicans Tuesday night that he is in the best position to defend Trump against Democrats and their investigations thanks to his time on the committee investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi that killed four Americans. He is also a member of the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees, the two permanent committees responsible for the majority of investigations.
“I think we’re entering a world we haven’t really seen,” Jordan said. “I think it’s going to take an attitude and an intensity about standing up for the truth and fighting.”
The job of official party leaders changes dramatically from the majority to the minority. Unlike in the majority where leaders set the agenda, the minority leader has to keep up party morale despite having very little power over the day to day operations inside the Capitol.
It is a difficult job under the best circumstances, pitting leaders against anxious members who feel ineffective. And top leaders no longer have the ability to offer amendments on key bills or other enticements to urge rank and file to stay united behind the leadership’s message. The job will be even more complicated next year when Democrats launch investigations into President Trump, his family businesses and his administration.
Leaders will have to manage the strategy for those committee members who will be forced to participate in the investigations — on top of pressure from the White House to protect the president.
McCarthy is generally expected to win the top leadership slot, but conservatives are making an aggressive push for greater control in the House, according to several Republican members and aides who were granted anonymity to discuss internal GOP negotiations.
McCarthy focused much of his attention during the 2018 campaign on raising money for embattled candidates and keeping control of seven GOP-held seats in California that were prime targets for Democrats. He succeeded on the money front, transferring roughly $5.7 million to candidates in just two weeks in October, but failed to keep many of the seats in his home state.
Democrats have won three of the seven seats so far and are on track to pick up at least two more. That leaves McCarthy in a weaker position than he had hoped going into the Wednesday vote.
The other top seats in Republican leadership are uncontested so far. GOP Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., is widely expected to keep his job. He is well-liked among Republicans and rose to national prominence last year after he was shot and seriously injured at a GOP baseball practice in Virginia. Scalise forged a close bond with his colleagues and President Trump during his recovery and worked hard after Ryan’s retirement announcement to raise money and stump for Republican candidates.
Scalise was rumored to be considering a run to challenge McCarthy for House Speaker but the potential fight cooled after Republicans lost control of the House.
Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney is also uncontested in her bid for House GOP Conference Chair. The number three leadership slot is typically in charge of messaging and acting as a liaison between leadership and rank and file members.
Cheney, is expected to replace Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who was re-elected but is stepping away from leadership. Cheney says she wants to go on the offensive to push back as Democrats try to investigate Trump and dismantle his legislative agenda. She is the eldest daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who held the post as GOP conference chair during his tenure in the House over 30 years ago.
“We are serving in this House at a hinge point in history,” Cheney said in a letter announcing her run. “The next two years will shape the key issues of our time, and for many years to come. We have a duty to ensure our ideals and policies prevail.”
House Democrats will elect their nominee to serve as Speaker of the House and other top leadership positions for the next session when they officially take the majority later this month.