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Representatives James "Jim" Morris (R-Oil City), left, and Clay Schexnayder (R-Gonzales) look over documents before legislative session ends sine die, Thursday, June 6, 2019, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La.

Last month, state Rep. Sherman Mack became the official House GOP-endorsed candidate for speaker, but the race has only heated up since then, with the two top candidates, both Republicans, ratcheting up the behind-closed-door campaigning for the job.

With House Republicans split between supporting Mack and the other top candidate, state Rep. Clay Schexnayder, the next speaker could be decided by how Democrats break between the top two candidates.

Thirty-nine of his fellow Republican colleagues, many of them freshmen, voted for Mack in a secret ballot process in a private GOP delegation meeting in December. Since then, Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, two high-profile Republicans who have exerted increasing influence on the Louisiana Republican Party of late, have called House members urging them to support Mack, a Livingston Parish lawyer.

House GOP set to hear from these speaker candidates Friday as front-runners emerge

Before the delegation vote last month, Kennedy and Landry wrote a letter to Republican representatives calling on them to decide the next House speaker without the input of Democrats. Republicans have 68 members in the House, easily more than the 53 votes the House speaker must win when the vote takes place on Jan. 13. Many of those Republicans had the backing of a political action committee run by Kennedy and Landry when they ran for election to the House in the fall.

That plea apparently fell on deaf ears. Both Mack and Schexnayder have met with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and lawmakers from the other side of the aisle. Republicans have not coalesced around either candidate entirely, meaning the candidates will have to peel off Republicans from the other or win enough Democratic and independent support to hit the magic number.

“I think when you are in the speaker’s race or in the speaker’s position your first duty is to represent the House as a whole,” said Schexnayder, a Gonzales auto shop owner. “The last time I checked, there were only 68 of us (Republicans). For us to exclude the rest of the House, I think that gives us a shortcoming.”

Mack, who insisted he has enough Democratic support, coupled with his Republican allies, to win the race, indicated Democrats would likely have some chairmanships if he won. Campaigning for speaker frequently involves promising committee chairmanships and assignments to win over colleagues. In the past term, Democrats chaired four of the 16 House committees.

Among Mack’s supporters is Lane Grigsby, a well-heeled GOP donor and industrial contractor in Baton Rouge, who said Mack currently has around 50 votes. Grigsby blasted the contingent of Republican members who didn’t line up behind Mack after the GOP delegation endorsed him, blaming the “rebel” group for the fact that Mack must turn to Democrats to build a winning coalition. If those Republicans didn’t stick with Schexnayder, “there would be no need for anyone to ask the black caucus or the Democratic caucus” who they support in the race, Grigsby said.

“There’s still a group out there that’s trying to do away with the will of the majority of the Republican delegation,” Grigsby said, adding he is merely a “cheerleader” in the negotiations.

Grigsby said he didn’t know Mack until last spring, when he said he polled third-term lawmakers on who would make a good leader, and Mack’s name emerged. Despite his skepticism about Mack’s record on tort reform, which has emerged as a consensus priority among business interests and conservative Republicans this year, Grigsby met with Mack and was convinced that Mack supported the effort. Grigsby pointed to the fact that Mack votes with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry — Louisiana’s largest business lobby — 83% of the time during the past term. That’s the same percentage as Schexnayder.

The debate over tort reform, a long-held priority of the business community to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to sue insurance companies and other industries, played out last year during the legislative session, when lawmakers killed a bill LABI called its No. 1 priority.

The bill would have made sweeping changes to how courts handle car wreck cases, and after it failed, Republicans seized on the issue during the ensuing campaign season, blaming the bill’s opponents for Louisiana’s high auto insurance rates. Critics of the legislation slammed the measure as a way to keep people injured in accidents from being able to hold insurance companies accountable, and pointed to the fact that insurance companies would not commit to lowering car insurance rates if it passed.

Schexnayder said he remains in the race for speaker because he wants to make sure the House remains an “independent voice,” after the Republicans made a historic vote to install one of their own four years ago, bucking the governor’s preferred pick. This time, Schexnayder said the body needs to be independent of “outside influences” pushing for Mack.

“Four years ago we worked hard to put people in there who had very little outside influence at all,” Schexnayder said. “We want to make sure it stays that way.”

Outside forces have also mobilized against Mack. John Mathis, a political operative who has worked to help elect Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, Rob Maness and former Alabama Judge Roy Moore, has targeted Mack from the right, arguing his election as speaker when Republicans want to pass tort reform would be akin to the “fox guarding the henhouse” because Mack is a “trial lawyer.” Mathis said he is not a Schexnayder supporter and is not backing a particular candidate.

Mack pushed back against the idea that he is not a real supporter of tort reform and said he will carry one of the bills himself.

“Being an attorney is honorable if you make it that way,” Mack said. “I’m not a trial lawyer. I have a small town family practice.”

Mathis intends to leverage a list of conservative voters — built when he ran an outside group aimed at attacking former Attorney General Buddy Caldwell when Jeff Landry was running against him — to blast Mack as a “trial attorney.” He also plans to run digital ads targeting Republican voters.

Meanwhile, House Democrats will meet before the Jan. 13 vote to discuss the race, said state Rep. Sam Jenkins, the vice chair of the Democratic caucus.

“We certainly are going to want some consensus amongst our members as to where we stand,” Jenkins said.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com