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The race for the next leader of House Republicans is on

The real question: Who does Mark Meadows want to be speaker?

House GOP Leadership Address The Media After Their Weekly Party Conference
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise are vying for the speakership.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The race to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan has begun.

Ryan, who announced Wednesday he will not run for reelection this November, says he plans to keep his leadership post until he retires in January, but top House Republicans are already trying to position themselves as his heir apparent.

There are two frontrunners in this race for the speakership: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who has cultivated a close relationship with President Donald Trump and had ambitions for the job in the past; and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the conservative Louisiana Republican who gained national attention after he was shot at a congressional baseball practice last summer and is the only Southern Congress member in leadership.

Also possibly throwing his hat in the ring is House Freedom Caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a controversial conservative leader. Jordan has told some Republican colleagues he is “strongly considering” a run for speaker, the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis reported Friday morning. Jordan would have little chance of winning if he did run, but it would complicate things for both Scalise and McCarthy.

Ryan has endorsed McCarthy, he told Meet the Press host Chuck Todd in an interview that will air this weekend. There were earlier signs Ryan wanted his majority leader to succeed him; on Thursday he said he was “encouraged” that Scalise had said McCarthy should take up the mantle. Scalise has said publicly that he would not run against McCarthy, but both have been angling for the spot.

But Ryan’s preferences might seal the deal.

Whoever wins the speakership needs a simple majority of the entire House — about 218 votes. Assuming Democrats will stand united against whomever Republicans nominate, any Republican faction with roughly two dozen votes can stop a possible nominee in his or her tracks — and the Freedom Caucus has 40 members.

“If we control enough votes to veto who the next speaker is going to be, do you think it is going to be someone who engages less with the Freedom Caucus?” Chair Mark Meadows (R-NC) asked rhetorically when presented with the possibility of a more moderate Republican leader nominee.

But underlying all this jockeying is a tacit understanding that, come November, Republicans may not have to elect a speaker at all. If Republicans lose the majority, they will only have to pick a minority leader — a very different job that requires a very different skill set and only needs a majority of support within the conference.

The race is on.

Two leading candidates are gearing up for a seven-month speakership campaign

Speaker Ryan And House Leadership  Address The Media After Weekly Policy Conference
The two frontrunners in the race for Paul Ryan’s successor are both in leadership with him.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Unless Ryan decides to step down from the speakership between now and November, Republicans are gearing up for seven months of campaigning for the top leadership spot.

It’s too early to start openly campaigning for the spot; both McCarthy and Scalise, who are in Ryan’s leadership team, say they are just focused on keeping the Republican House majority in 2019. But behind the scenes, staffers will tell you the two lawmakers are already trying to build coalitions. Republicans members say they are already “sizing up” McCarthy and Scalise as the possible replacements for Ryan, according to Politico.

McCarthy, the California Republican who has been the House majority leader since 2014, is both close to Ryan in leadership and a close ally of President Donald Trump. Unlike Ryan, McCarthy has never been known as someone who will lead a policy debate, but he’s known for being well-liked and a skilled political tactician — and has definitely had ambitions for the speakership.

He fell short in his campaign to succeed John Boehner, mired by rumors of an extramarital affair and a revolt from members of the House Freedom Caucus, who said McCarthy would be too close in style to Boehner.

Scalise, meanwhile, has always been seen as the more conservative policy ideologue compared to McCarthy. He’s from the South, something some conservative members of the conference value — for all the pros and cons that brings. And after the shooting last summer, which left Scalise in critical condition for months, his triumphant recovery presented a comeback story Republicans could get behind when picking their next leader.

And, of course, there is always the chance for a dark-horse candidate who can run through the ranks. There are rumors that Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), who runs the much bigger mainstream conservative caucus the Republican Study Committee, is thinking about throwing his name into the ring. He denied that he’s actively seeking the job but didn’t rule out the possibility in an interview with Vox.

Meadows also floated Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, a rank-and-file Republican who has said he plans to leave Congress after one more term in office. Meadows himself said he has no aspirations for the speakership, but it’s not lost on anyone that his caucus would love to see him throw his hat into the ring.

For now, it appears as though many are coalescing around McCarthy. But he has a history with some of the more conservative Republicans in the conference wary of letting someone from Ryan’s leadership into the speaker’s office.

The Mark Meadows factor hangs heavy over this race

The speaker’s race ultimately comes down to some simple math.

There are currently 237 House Republicans. Without any major changes in the next seven months, Republicans need between 215 and 218 votes to confirm a speaker. In other words, Meadows — who chairs a cohort of roughly 40 men who make up the House’s most conservative faction and Trump’s most ardent supporters — has a lot of power.

The Freedom Caucus wields enough votes to stop any speaker nomination in its tracks, and Meadows, who is known to have almost-daily personal conversations with Trump, has a direct line to the president if things don’t go his way.

These are leverage points he is not afraid to use.

Only three years ago, Meadows filed a motion to remove Boehner from his seat as speaker, a catalyst for Boehner’s retirement. In 2015, the Freedom Caucus refused to support McCarthy in his bid for the speakership, saying he was too close to Boehner’s leadership team. The revolt ultimately gave rise to Ryan’s leadership.

The gripes with McCarthy weren’t necessarily personal. The Freedom Caucus is simply anti-status quo. They are in the business of moving policy far to the right, even if it tanks the whole thing altogether. And McCarthy, who was majority leader at the time, was simply seen as the next in line — an establishment system the Freedom Caucus fundamentally rejected.

But a lot has changed since 2015. Meadows told reporters that McCarthy “has been reaching out, trying to keep his promises to a number of members of House Freedom Caucus that will serve him well in whatever race should he throw his hat in the ring.”

And it’s not lost on anyone that McCarthy’s close relationship with Trump plays a role. The Freedom Caucus doesn’t break with Trump often, and while the president has yet to weigh in, McCarthy has long been seen as the president’s closest leadership ally.

The Freedom Caucus isn’t ready to commit; some are still holding concerns that McCarthy is too close to the establishment.

“I am not interested in anybody on the current leadership team,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), who is in the Freedom Caucus.

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If this is a race for speaker, Rep. Mark Meadows’s preference matters a lot.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This might not be a race for speaker at all

Underlying all this party infighting is an understanding among Republicans that come January 2019, there might not be a Republican speaker in the House at all.

“We have to make sure we maintain our majority, and that’s got to be our focus from now until November and not to get ahead of ourselves,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) said.

The timing of Ryan’s retirement wasn’t random. Trump remains extremely unpopular, and special elections across the country indicate Democratic voters are extremely energized to kick Republicans out of office — a reality Ryan’s retirement reflects. Democrats need to win 24 seats in 2018 to take control of the House, which is looking more and more possible.

Minority leader and speaker are two are fundamentally different jobs. Minority leaders don’t have much policy leverage. Like we’ve seen with Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the job is about keeping the members in line behind a clear party message. It’s more offensive work.

The speakership, however, has to defend its party’s legislative agenda. There’s a valid debate over which candidate — Scalise, McCarthy, or anyone else — would better serve each role.