Washington — Some political campaigns are marathons, but for U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, this one has been more of a sprint — and it ends Thursday afternoon when he finds out if he will take over the No. 3 spot in the ruling House Republican majority.
That spot — majority whip — would represent the highest any Louisiana Republican has climbed in the U.S. House leadership (although one of his 1st Congressional District predecessors, Bob Livingston, came within an extramarital indiscretion of landing the top job of House speaker in 1998).
The constituency for the leadership election is small: The 233 Republicans in the House. They will meet behind closed doors Thursday afternoon and cast secret ballots to decide if Scalise beats out the two other candidates for whip.
The term comes from the occupant’s responsibility to “whip” party members in line in support of leadership-endorsed legislation.
“The whip is the implementer,” said Livingston, now a D.C. lobbyist. “He consults on policy but he is not the policy decider. That’s the role of the majority leader and speaker.”
But it’s a high-profile position and a stepping stone to greater heights.
Scalise, 48, is considered the favorite to win, but not the prohibitive favorite. He faces a strong challenge from Peter Roskam, 52, of Illinois, who holds the appointive position of chief deputy whip. Also in the running is Marlin Stutzman, 37, of Indiana.
The format of the election should be familiar to Scalise, as a Louisiana voter: It takes a majority of the members present and voting, and if none of the three candidates reaches that mark on the first ballot, the top two finishers meet in a runoff. In this election, the runoff will be held immediately.
At least, that’s the anticipated script. The actual vacancy in the leadership is the No. 2 spot, majority leader. It’s anticipated — there’s that word again — that the current whip, Kevin McCarthy, of California, will be elected Thursday as majority leader, creating the opening Scalise hopes to fill.
Something wholly unanticipated kicked off the whole process nine days ago: Majority Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, lost his attempt to win an eighth two-year term when he was soundly defeated in a Republican primary by a little-known and lightly funded tea party candidate. The next day, Cantor announced he will quit as majority leader July 31.
Since then, Scalise has been campaigning intensely — plotting his strategy, assembling a cadre of supportive House members, calling and meeting and cajoling and persuading. He took a one-day break to spend Father’s Day with his family in Jefferson in his mostly suburban district that covers the southeast corner of Louisiana except for New Orleans. One evening earlier this week, he restlessly worked the House floor, hopping into a seat next to one member for a chat, huddling with others in the back of the chamber, ducking out into a lounge to take a cellphone call.
But Scalise has been eyeing the post for some time, anticipating a future opening in the leadership. His base is the Republican Study Conference, which includes 173 members advancing a rightward agenda. His conservative bona fides are impeccable — he’s one of 15 House Republicans with a perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union for 2012-13 — but he also is regarded as someone who can work with and befriend more moderate members. And he can play the red-state card: McCarthy, Cantor and Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, all come from states that voted twice for Democrat Barack Obama for president.
Roskam, too, has been laying plans for some time for an eventual whip campaign. He’s considerably more moderate than Scalise, and also from a state that Obama carried twice. He, too, is widely liked and respected, and more than Scalise, represents continuity in the front offices.
Stutzman’s state is purple — for Obama in ’08, against him in ’12. Stutzman is the most junior of the three in terms of House membership, but that may be an advantage: Only nominally less conservative than Scalise, he is from the large, restive and deeply tea-stained class of 2010 that gave Republicans the House majority.
Stutzman is considered the longest shot to win, but with no scientific polling and much winking and nodding, the race is difficult to evaluate — especially beyond the first round of voting, when commitments may be abandoned and allegiances shift.
“Stutzman’s support could be enough to throw the race to the second ballot,” said David Wasserman, the House expert with the national Cook Political Report. “So there’s a lot of palace intrigue on the Republican side.”
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