After a quick one-day trip home to Louisiana for Father’s Day, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise was back in town Monday, pressing for support from his fellow House Republicans in his race for majority whip.

It’s a three-way fight, with Scalise, of Jefferson, considered the favorite. But a victory for him in Thursday’s balloting is by no means assured.

It’s a hard race to handicap: There’s no Gallup polling, and some House members play their cards close to the vest. Plus, it’s a secret ballot, so if a commitment today is broken Thursday, no one will be the wiser.

Whip is the No. 3 job on the House majority organization chart. At the top is the speaker, elected by the full House but controlled by the majority party. No. 2 is majority leader, who plays a central role in advancing the party’s agenda and directing the flow of legislation. The majority whip corrals votes from his party’s members to ensure the passage of bills on the House floor.

Both majority leader and whip are elected in a closed-door session of party members in the House. It takes a majority of the members present and voting to win: In this case, 117 of the 233 House Republicans, if they all show up. If no one gets a majority on the first ballot, the last-place finisher drops out of the next round. If the field remains as it is now — Scalise, Peter Roskam, of Illinois, and Marlin Stutzman, of Indiana — then the election will take no more than two ballots.

With Monday an off day, most House members would be returning to the Capitol late Monday or early Tuesday. A week ago, no one expected a House leadership election any time this month. But last Tuesday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia suffered a stunning defeat in a primary at the hands of a little-known, lightly funded tea party challenger. The next day, he announced he would step down from his leadership post at the end of July, setting off a game of political musical chairs.

The current whip, Kevin McCarthy, of California, is widely expected to replace Cantor, although Raul Labrador, of Idaho, will challenge him from the far right. If McCarthy, a moderate, moves up, the voting for whip will take place next.

Here’s a rundown of the three candidates for whip:

  • Roskam (elected in 2006): As McCarthy’s appointee as chief deputy whip, Roskam, 52, is next in line to McCarthy. But that business-as-usual formula rankles some of the tea party zealots, who complain their insurgency doesn’t get its due in the hierarchy. Also, Roskam is the most moderate of the three candidates, and his elevation would mean the top three posts would continue to be held by representatives from states carried by Democrat Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections (Speaker John Boehner is from Ohio).
  • Scalise (elected in 2008): As head of the 173-member Republican Study Committee, a right-leaning policy organization, Scalise, 48, makes his run from a solid base, and his rating from the American Conservative Union was a perfect 100 in 2012-13. He’s from a deep red, Obama-rejecting state. But some of the true believers on the right may suspect he’s cozied up too much to the moderate leadership, whose support helped him win the RSC chairmanship.
  • Stutzman (elected in 2010): A later entry in the race (both Roskam and Scalise have been preparing to run for whip at some point in the future), Stutzman, 37, is a bit of wild card. His conservative rating is just a tick below Scalise’s, and he’s from the big Republican Class of 2010, the tea-party-inflected group that brought the party the House majority. His state is purple: for Obama in 2008, against him in 2012. If he’s knocked out in the first round, where his voters go next could determine the winner.

Follow Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington bureau on Twitter @GregRobertsDC.