What to watch for in today's heated House GOP leadership elections

Meredith Shiner, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
In this Jan. 4, 2013, file photo, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., left, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif., shuttle between the House floor and the offices of House Speaker John Boehner, on Capitol Hill in Washington. In the tumultuous aftermath of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s sudden loss last week in his Virginia primary race, McCarthy is the strong favorite to become the new majority leader, and Roskam is seeking votes in the Republican Conference to take over as the new whip. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Nine days after Eric Cantor’s shocking primary loss, House Republicans will gather on Thursday behind closed doors to elect new leaders in the congressional equivalent of a papal conclave. And while such an event seems, on its surface, to be the sort of political sport that engages only the inside-the-Beltway class, it also has potential ramifications for the larger GOP moving forward, as conservatives and establishment members square off over the future of their party.

The secret-ballot election, which will take place at 2 p.m. in the Longworth House Office Building’s ornate Ways and Means Committee room, could last for hours. Members are at a minimum choosing a new majority leader, replacing Cantor, and most likely also voting in a three-way race for majority whip. Though leadership elections are often messy affairs, this particular election seems especially fraught, as the conference’s insurgent conservatives hope not to squander the political window opened by Cantor’s upset loss at the hands of a tea party challenger.

The candidates for majority leader are current Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Raul Labrador of Idaho, the anti-establishment challenger. If McCarthy wins, as he is widely anticipated to do, that would trigger an immediate election to replace him as whip. Three candidates — Peter Roskam of Illinois, Marlin Stutzman of Indiana and Steve Scalise of Louisiana — are all vying for that one spot. If none of those lawmakers gets a majority of the votes on his first shot, the top two vote-getters will face a second ballot. Both the candidates and leadership aides are expecting and preparing for the race to go to a second ballot.

Roskam is the establishment favorite, but the battle between Stutzman and Scalise has become a contest to prove who is more conservative. The race to the right in the whip campaign provides conservatives with their best chance to wreak havoc on leadership from the inside. It also is the latest illustration of the existential question facing the GOP, posed by Yahoo News’ Matt Bai in the week leading up to Cantor’s loss: Who exactly is conservative enough for the current crop of Republicans?

On Wednesday, the full slate of candidates delivered speeches to the conference. At center stage was the theme of leadership losing touch with its rank andfile and Republican grass-roots voters.

Labrador, who was not the first choice of many conservatives to challenge McCarthy, spent much of his majority leader’s speech articulating the frustrations that conservatives feel within the conference. The Idaho Republican’s late decision to enter the race, when no one else would, has largely been viewed as a vehicle for the most disgruntled conservatives to vent. His message reflected that.

“I want every member, regardless of what state you come from or whether you meet for lunch on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, to feel like you are relevant again,” Labrador said in his remarks to the room, according to his office. “I want members of Congress to be more relevant than the staff.  Why are we even here if the leadership staff is going to make all decisions any way?”

Yet even some conservatives feel apprehensive about Labrador, given his position on the need for some kind of immigration legislation. Immigration has been pointed to as one of the issues that helped Cantor’s primary opponent knock him out.

Meanwhile, McCarthy, according to a source familiar with his remarks, spent much of his address focused on the lessons he’s learned in leadership, the relationships he’s built with members (earlier in the week, the Washington Examiner reported Labrador didn’t have telephone numbers for the members he was trying to reach for support) and the importance of coordinating with Senate Republicans, particularly if they are able to win back the majority in 2014.

The whip race that would be triggered by a McCarthy win could prove a more dramatic spectacle. The majority whip is responsible for counting votes for the GOP leadership, and as such it could cause quite a bit of heartburn for leaders if someone won who stands against all of their initiatives. Multiple leadership and rank-and-file sources approached for this story declined to predict a winner and suggested that the race is very much up in the air.

Roskam is the current chief deputy whip, aligning him closely already with McCarthy and leaders. His election would largely maintain the leadership’s status quo. Scalise is the current head of the Republican Study Committee, the hub of conservatism in the House that includes 170 of 233 GOP members. But Scalise’s tenure at the RSC has not been viewed as favorably as that of his predecessor, Jim Jordan, whom tea party faithful viewed as more loyal to their cause. Republican sources who requested anonymity so they could speak candidly on the race said there is concern that if chosen, Scalise would be more cooperative with leaders than they would like. That left the door open for another conservative alternative, Stutzman, who is now splitting the conservative vote. Roskam has expressed confidence that he will make it to the second ballot, and if Scalise beats Stutzman, some sources believe Stutzman voters could defect to Roskam so conservatives can regroup and challenge the whole establishment leadership slate in the next Congress.

No matter who gets elected to lead them, House Republicans will be the official voice of the GOP in Washington in advance of the 2016 presidential election if Senate Republicans cannot win back their chamber this fall.

And that’s just what both sides, establishment and conservative, are afraid of.