Speaker Jim Jordan. The phrase would have long been unthinkable, even laughable, to most Republicans in the House of Representatives.
But though he’s long been considered a firebrand, an attack dog, and even a “legislative terrorist” (per former Speaker John Boehner), Jordan was the GOP’s nominee when the House of Representatives voted on a speaker this week.
Yet Jordan’s bid has hit a snag. In two rounds of balloting so far on the House floor, holdout Republicans have prevented him from getting the votes he needs. That means, for now, that the House is still speakerless.
Jordan is expected to try again, though. He likely hopes that through some combination of pressure and dealmaking, the GOP resistance to his speakership will crumble.
To understand why a Jordan speakership would be so significant — and is proving so controversial — it’s worth understanding just who Jordan is.
Previous Republican speakers — Boehner, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy — were conservatives who accommodated their conference’s right flank in various ways. But Jordan is of the hard right. He’s a staunch Donald Trump ally and was a collaborator in Trump’s effort to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory — he privately advised the White House that Vice President Mike Pence should throw out electoral votes from states Biden won.
Jordan’s cultivation of the right helped him rise to power in the GOP conference, often at the expense of previous leaders like Boehner, and helped him survive a scandal that threatened to derail his career in 2018. Jordan then made somewhat of a turn, building an alliance with McCarthy — just as the House GOP establishment embraced the hard right more tightly and moved further in Jordan’s direction.
If Jordan wins the speakership, it would become unmistakably clear that the right-wing hardliners who’ve had increasing influence in the House GOP are now in charge of the conference. That is one reason some Republicans are holding back their support for him on the floor. The holdouts include several members from districts Joe Biden won in 2020, and several more who serve on the powerful Appropriations Committee and may distrust Jordan on government funding issues.
Back in January, McCarthy managed to grind out a victory over four days and 15 rounds of balloting. Now Jordan will get his chance to see if he can do the same.
If he can win the speakership, Jordan’s most pressing near-term task will be averting a government shutdown set to begin in just one month. He’ll also have to work out longer-term government funding deals, and decide how to deal with investigations and the impeachment inquiry into President Biden, all while trying to help the House GOP keep its majority in 2024.
In doing all this, he’ll face many of the same pressures and incentives as McCarthy and his other predecessors did. But Jordan could paradoxically find it easier to cut deals with Democrats, since he has deep wells of trust and credibility on the right, and may be less blamed for selling out. Of course, whether Jordan would want to cut deals is a question of its own. Would he be changed by the institution of the speaker’s office, or is it too hard to teach an old attack dog new tricks?
Who is Jim Jordan?
Jordan’s playbook throughout his career has been to make himself the champion of the right, always eager to attack Democrats with bare-knuckle partisan warfare, and often willing to denounce GOP establishment leaders as feckless and weak-willed.
First elected to the House of Representatives in 2006 after a 12-year stint in Ohio’s state legislature, Jordan gained little national notice until the Tea Party wave of 2010. When the new majority took office in 2011. Jordan had already risen to become chair of the Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives. By 2015, he’d concluded that body wasn’t extreme enough, and co-founded the House Freedom Caucus to try and even more aggressively challenge GOP leaders. The group’s hardline stances consistently frustrated party leaders in the ensuing years.
In the fights over spending and the debt ceiling that ran through President Obama and Speaker Boehner’s tenures, Jordan was a leading proponent of hardball tactics, frequently excoriating his own party’s leadership for purportedly not being tough enough, as well as embarrassing them by rejecting deals they’d negotiated with Democrats. By July 2011, reporters were already asking whether it was Jordan, not Boehner, who was the most powerful House Republican.
“To Boehner and his allies, Jordan was the antagonist in the story of his speakership — an embodiment of the brinkmanship and betrayal that roiled the House Republican majority and made Boehner’s life miserable,” Tim Alberta wrote in Politico Magazine in 2017.
Meanwhile, Jordan also built up his reputation as a partisan attack dog and a conservative media favorite with his work on investigations. During the Obama administration, he snarled out contemptuous questions to officials involved in the various purported scandals Fox and other media outlets were hyping. Then, when Trump took office, Jordan used subpoena power and the bully pulpit to try to discredit any investigations into misconduct by the president. This is now typical House Republican behavior, but at the time it stood out — Jordan was among a small group of lawmakers willing to aggressively challenge special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe early.
Jim Jordan’s career was almost derailed by scandal
Yet as Jordan was attaining new prominence as a Trump ally, a scandal broke out that imperiled his career.
When Jordan was in college, he was a star wrestler at Ohio State University. After graduation, from 1987 until 1995, he was an assistant coach for OSU’s wrestling program. During that period, OSU’s athletics department employed a doctor named Richard Strauss who, a law firm retained by OSU in 2019 concluded, “sexually abused at least 177 male student-patients he was charged with treating as a University physician.” Strauss was the wrestling team’s doctor and many of his victims were wrestlers.
Strauss died in 2005, but the accusations against him were first publicly reported in 2018. Former OSU wrestlers told reporters that Strauss’s conduct was “an open secret in the athletics department.” And some pointed the finger at Jordan specifically — arguing that he knew about Strauss’s abuse and did nothing to stop it. Six former wrestlers told CNN that they were present when complaints about Strauss were made to Jordan.
Jordan worked feverishly to try and rebut the accusations. One former wrestler, Adam DiSabato, testified to the Ohio state legislature that Jordan called and urged him to rebut his brother’s claims that Jordan knew about Strauss’s conduct. “Jim Jordan called me crying, crying. Groveling. On the 4th of July, begging me to go against my brother,” DiSabato told Ohio legislators. “Begging me. Crying for a half hour. That’s the kind of cover-ups that’s going on there.”
A Jordan spokesperson told CNN that DiSabato’s claim was a “lie.” His office’s standard response to these claims has been the statement: “Congressman Jordan never saw or heard of any abuse, and if he had he would have dealt with it.” (One former OSU wrestler told NBC News that was “playing with words,” adding, “None of us used the words ‘sexual abuse’ when we talked about what Doc Strauss was doing to us, we just knew it was weird and Jimmy knew about it because we talked about it all the time in the locker room, at practices, everywhere.”)
In the end, conservatives and the Republican Party backed Jordan, the news cycle moved on, and he kept his seat and positions in the House. He may be derisively nicknamed “Gym Jordan” by liberals on social media, but the scandal did not dislodge his rise to power. Jordan was the right’s champion, so the right stuck with him.
How Jordan rose to the brink of the speakership
The story of Jordan’s rise to the top of House GOP politics is in part a story of changes in the party and in part a story of changes in Jordan’s own approach.
Jordan made a play at leading the House GOP once before, in November 2018. Republicans had just lost the House and Ryan was retiring, so the GOP had to elect a new minority leader. Jordan threw his hat in the ring against Ryan’s number two, Kevin McCarthy. But McCarthy won easily, in a 159 to 43 vote. Jordan wasn’t even close.
It was then, per reporting by Politico’s Olivia Beavers, that McCarthy offered Jordan a choice. If Jordan wanted the top GOP slot on the House Oversight Committee, he had to stop undercutting party leaders and stop causing chaos in the GOP conference. Jordan agreed. He led Republicans on the Oversight Committee and then, when it opened up in 2020, the House Judiciary Committee. He didn’t totally change his ways — he was still a partisan attack dog — but he was more of a team player and developed a good working relationship with McCarthy.
McCarthy and the House GOP, meanwhile, embraced the partisan logic of being all-out defenders of Donald Trump — even when Trump tried to do outrageous things, like overturning Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.
Jordan himself was in regular contact with the White House (his former House Freedom Caucus co-founder Mark Meadows was then chief of staff) as Trump’s effort unfolded. “Jim Jordan knew more about what Donald Trump had planned for January 6th than any other member of the House of Representatives,” former Rep. Liz Cheney said this month.
In public, Jordan implied the election was stolen; in private, he texted Meadows suggesting that Pence should throw out Biden’s electoral votes in swing states. Like McCarthy, he voted to throw out Biden’s wins in Arizona and Pennsylvania. And after the January 6 attacks, he quickly returned to his usual partisan rancor. McCarthy and most of the House GOP did the same, as critics of Donald Trump retired or lost their seats in primaries.
Then, this year, when McCarthy came under pressure, Jordan stuck by him. In the 4-day, 15-ballot speaker election in January, Jordan stood with McCarthy rather than seeking to challenge him again. When McCarthy cut a deal with President Biden to raise the debt ceiling — a deal the old Jordan would have worked tirelessly to scuttle — Jordan endorsed it. When McCarthy was finally deposed by just eight defecting Republicans (joining with Democrats), Jordan’s fingerprints weren’t on the effort.
Scalise, McCarthy’s number two, was next in line. But the deposed speaker sounded notably warmer toward the prospect of Jordan succeeding him than Scalise, with whom he’d had a fraught relationship. Scalise prevailed in the initial internal party vote last week, but privately, Jordan didn’t sound ready to give up. He said he’d back Scalise on the House floor, but reportedly told him, “America wants me.” And when hardline Republicans said they’d oppose Scalise, Jordan didn’t seem to be working too hard to win them over.
But unlike Scalise, who said he wouldn’t cut any side deals to make himself speaker, and then threw in the towel after barely more than 24 hours of effort, Jordan has spent the past few days trying to win over his doubters in the GOP conference. Defense hawks and appropriators disliked Jordan’s history of supporting defense cuts, but he reassured them. There are reports that he may have cut a deal to allow Ukraine aid — opposed by many on the right, but supported by Democrats and a faction of House Republicans — to a vote.
These efforts have not, however, been enough to win him the speakership just yet.
Would Jordan be moderated by the speakership — or would he be the most extreme speaker ever?
Inevitably, Speaker Jordan would have to disappoint some Republicans. He’ll face the same implacable challenges that confronted Kevin McCarthy before him.
The demands of the various factions within the GOP conference are incompatible. Some are willing to cut deals with Democrats to fund the government in a business-as-usual way; some want transformational spending cuts and fantasize that those can be achieved with hardball negotiating. Swing district members might prefer the party not embrace Trump so wholeheartedly, but the majority of the conference has gotten accustomed to doing just that.
If Jordan wins, for the rest of 2023 and 2024, one question is whether he would bring us a new round of congressional crises over government spending bills — or whether he could actually get the right to chill a bit.
Theoretically, Jordan could see his speakership as the ultimate chance to prove that he was right back in those battles with Boehner — that, with more guts and grit, the GOP could have forced Democrats to concede a whole lot more. If he chooses that path, things could get very messy on the road to 2024.
But remember, Jordan hasn’t sounded so eager to push big spending showdowns this year. He could well calculate that his legislative impact will be sharply limited so long as Democrats hold the presidency and the Senate — so he could instead devote his efforts to ensuring Republicans win in 2024, in hopes of passing sweeping bills under unified GOP rule in 2025. Jordan has never had to cater to swing district members, who generally hate government shutdowns, before, but if he wants to hold onto or expand his majority, he’ll have to do that.
An election-focused Jordan would not mean a kinder, gentler Jordan. He has long perfected the art of using congressional powers as partisan weapons, and he will surely redouble efforts to unearth any negative information he can about the Biden family, to better hurt Biden’s reelection. Partisan warfare is certain under Speaker Jordan; the question is which specific battles he will choose.
The real consequences of Jordan’s victory may play out if Trump wins in 2024 and returns to the presidency. Jordan has a track record of backing every authoritarian and anti-democratic move Trump makes. If Trump plans any further power grabs, Jim Jordan is exactly who he’d want to have running the House. Gulp.
Update, October 18, 2:10 pm ET: This article was originally published on October 17 and has been updated to reflect the second ballot speaker’s vote Wednesday.