House Leadership Races Bring Out The Most Machiavellian Moves

For the attentive reader.

WASHINGTON ― There is perhaps no purer form of politics than a leadership race in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Members trade varying forms of support for other favors. They box out other competitors from running. And, in the case of conservative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), they delicately put themselves forward to angle for something else.

Jordan said Friday morning that while “there is no speaker’s race right now,” if there was one, he’s been “urged by colleagues” to “consider” running and is “definitely open to that.”

Jordan, the first chairman of the meddlesome Freedom Caucus, almost certainly will never be Speaker of the House. The speaker needs 218 public votes on the floor, and it’s difficult to see Jordan ever getting there. But posturing now to throw his hat in the ring likely isn’t about winning that race. Instead, Jordan and other conservatives may be setting themselves up to stymie any other candidate and potentially make a deal for another position ― or, at least, get other concessions.

The dream scenario for conservatives is that in exchange for supporting a speaker they receive support for Jordan as majority leader. The two candidates would then run as a slate, potentially picking up the endorsement of President Donald Trump along the way, and pushing through both Republicans. While the speaker needs a majority of the whole House, the leader only needs a majority of Republicans behind closed doors, and conservatives believe Jordan could get there with the right pressure from the right people.

That demand might still be a little too ambitious, however, particularly if the Freedom Caucus only ends up holding a few dozen votes. The very fact that Jordan is now publicly putting himself out there suggests there isn’t yet any deal between Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) ― the natural heir to replace retiring Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as speaker ― and the Freedom Caucus. And McCarthy may not be all that interested in a speakership where Jordan is the majority leader setting the floor agenda.

The dream scenario for conservatives is that in exchange for supporting a speaker they receive support for [Jim] Jordan [R-Ohio] as majority leader.

Either way, even if they don’t get their first ask, conservatives could still negotiate to get other demands, like proportional representation on more desired committees or procedural reforms. But ultimately their hand is only as strong as the number of votes they hold.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) did mention Friday that he was confident no one currently has the votes to become speaker. “So anybody who says, well, this person can’t be speaker, or that one, there is no one in this body who could be speaker other than Speaker Ryan,” Meadows said.

But conservatives aren’t the only ones banking on no one being able to get to 218 votes.

The whole strategy from Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) seems to be to wait and let McCarthy falter in his quest to get a majority of the House, at which point Scalise could ride in and save the GOP conference from itself ― a scenario that played out two and a half years ago when McCarthy dropped out of the speaker’s race and Ryan entered the fray.

That strategy has its own problems though, especially if McCarthy were to get within striking distance of the number. Scalise may believe the Freedom Caucus and his own loyalists can block McCarthy from getting the numbers, but Scalise is already getting backed into supporting McCarthy for speaker himself, and if the Freedom Caucus cut a deal with McCarthy for Jordan to take the leader spot, it’s not unimaginable that McCarthy and Jordan ― both of whom are close with Trump ― could get the president to pressure Ryan out sooner rather than later.

In that sense, the deal conservatives may be offering to McCarthy might be an enticing one. He could likely ascend to the speakership now and take his chances in November that Republicans hold the House.

Of course, if Republicans lose the House, which is a distinct possibility, McCarthy’s reign could be very short-lived, and Republicans would be setting themselves up for an even more ugly leadership race. But that’s just one of the risks involved in this ploy.

If everything goes the way Ryan has laid out ― where he remains speaker through the elections and until the end of this Congress ― Republicans will get to see if they retain control of the majority and whether they need to have a speaker race. But even then, Jordan’s gambit could pay off. Conservatives believe Republicans may want a more fiery minority leader if they lose the majority, and though Jordan would certainly have trouble winning that race, conservatives are interested in seeing the mood of the conference then.

Asked Friday whether Republicans may want a different person to be speaker than they would minority leader, Jordan said, “Who knows?”

Jordan did deny that his shadow candidacy may be about leverage. “That’s not the point, that’s not the focus, that’s not even a question that should be asked at this moment,” he said.

But it’s hard to believe Jordan when the Freedom Caucus has shown for years that they have a knack for these sorts of tactical situations.

When HuffPost asked Meadows Friday what he’d say to people who think Jordan’s candidacy is just about leverage for the Freedom Caucus, Meadows said those people would be thinking “there is a whole lot more strategy to members of Congress than what I’ve evidenced in the last six years.”

“How’s that?” he then asked, making sure his quote would suffice.

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