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House Majority Leader Steve Scalise

Scalise’s first big test

Welcome to a House Republican leadership race and all it entails. These contests are personal, political, regional and very rough and tumble.

Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s stunning downfall at the hands of hardline conservatives has set off a chain reaction inside the upper ranks of the GOP conference. The only spot technically open right now is speaker, but that could quickly change.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise has already made an extensive round of calls seeking endorsements for speaker. He’ll meet with the Texas Republican delegation today (other candidates may, too). The 25 Texas votes are the biggest prize out there for House Republicans. Scalise already locked up the endorsement of Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas).

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the powerful Judiciary Committee chair and a conservative favorite, is making calls and sounding out supporters. It could get very interesting very fast if Jordan, who is aligned with McCarthy and being pushed by some of his allies, enters the race. A Jordan-Scalise speaker race would be one for the books.

Both Scalise and Jordan will have trouble capturing moderate support. So another centrist candidate may emerge.

Let’s start here: Scalise is the early favorite by dint of his position and operation. Does that guarantee he’ll win? No. But he’s the clear favorite. We’ll do a quick SWOT to explain why.

Strengths: In leadership races, the incumbent has a massive advantage. The Louisiana Republican has a sophisticated staff operation that has been running and winning leadership races for nine years.

Remember how difficult it is to get to 218. Scalise starts with the highest floor of all Republicans. Now that floor may not be as high as McCarthy’s was, somewhere around 200 votes. But Scalise has an array of GOP allies including House Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington (Texas), Reps. Drew Ferguson (Ga.), Ann Wagner (Mo.), Brad Wenstrup (Ohio), Vern Buchanan (Fla.), August Pfluger (Texas) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.). Scalise will draw heavily from the South — just like he did when he first broke into the leadership in 2014.

Team Scalise is tight knit. The majority leader has had the same cadre of aides around him for years. That starts with his chief of staff Brett Horton, a fellow Louisianan who has been with Scalise since 2010.

Here’s something else to consider: House Majority Whip Tom Emmer has already endorsed Scalise. Emmer was thought to be eyeing the speakership himself, despite his inexperience in the leadership. But Emmer told us Tuesday night that he believes Scalise “would make a great speaker.” That would also allow Emmer to move up to majority leader.

Let’s be honest here. Scalise is more of a hardliner than McCarthy. If you are one of the lawmakers who want the speaker to take the hardline position from the outset, Scalise is your guy. That’s not a criticism — but it should be said that Scalise isn’t one to revert to compromise early.

Weaknesses: OK, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Scalise was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, and he’s undergoing chemotherapy.

Scalise also was nearly killed by a crazed gunman in a June 2017 mass shooting. The guy has been through the ringer, physically and mentally. Does Scalise have what it takes to be speaker? Can he be on the road 100-plus days per year, away from his wife and children, doing the political travel required of modern speakers? His allies say yes, and Scalise says he’s fine. But there’s a definite hesitancy that we sense from some in Scalise’s orbit.

Scalise raises nowhere near the money that McCarthy raises. That’s just a fact. McCarthy is a prolific fundraiser who seemed to relish the plane-to-hotel-to-plan grind to fill the NRCC and the Congressional Leadership Fund’s coffers.

But the big problem for Scalise, to put it bluntly, is separating himself from the specter of McCarthy. The psychodrama between McCarthy and Scalise dates back 15 years. We lived it. The two men never really trusted each other. And we’re seeing lawmakers make the case that it’s time for a completely new face atop the conference. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a leading centrist, told us he wasn’t ready to commit to Scalise, which is the same posture he took back in January.

Remember: The New York GOP delegation is a small but influential group. You’ll see people like Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) emerge as a power broker, of sorts. Swing-district lawmakers such as Lawler and New York GOP Reps. Nick LaLota, Anthony D’Esposito and Marc Molinaro are furious with the hardliners and are going to want someone to confront them. McCarthy spent time and tens of millions of dollars getting these New Yorkers elected. Scalise will be a tough sell for them.

Opportunities: Scalise can’t really throw McCarthy under the bus, or he’ll risk alienating hardcore McCarthy supporters. But Scalise has seen McCarthy operate up close and can spell out how he’ll operate differently.

Threats: We mentioned Jordan’s real interest in the race above. There are doubts that Jordan can win over moderates, but he’d be a huge hit with conservatives, both on the Hill and in right-wing media. He’s a strong fundraiser. Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) are already backing the Ohio Republican. Jordan would be a legit threat to Scalise, although he may not be interested in the political side of being speaker.

When asked by CNN’s Manu Raju whether he will run for speaker, Jordan responded “That’s a decision for the conference.”

Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry seems to not want the gig, even though he already has the security detail on account of this temporary position. McHenry shook his head “No” when we asked if he was interested Tuesday night. However, there’s a large group of House Republicans who would want his services atop the party.

Other members to watch: RSC Chair Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) may look at a race for speaker, but we can’t imagine he’d draw much interest from the moderate crowd. Hern may look at other posts when they come open.

This will be a tremendously interesting week. The candidate forum is currently scheduled for next Tuesday and the internal GOP election is next Wednesday.

Also: If Scalise and Emmer move up to speaker and majority leader, there’ll be an opening at whip. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), the chief deputy whip, will have a big advantage here.

— Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.