Steve Scalise will be expected to bridge the establishment and Tea Party wings of a often party at war with itself
On Thursday afternoon, Peter Roskam and a group of his most loyal supporters gathered in his office on the second floor of the Cannon Building on Capitol Hill. Rep. Greg Harper (R-Miss.) quoted Proverbs 21:31 to the group: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory belongs to The Lord.” And Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), a pastor, gave a blessing. Roskam, the Chief Deputy Whip in the GOP conference, then led the solemn, dark-suited group next door into the Longworth House Office Building under skies that were threatening rain. The men and women flanking the Illinois Republican were not the funeral procession they resembled, but rather a show of force and popularity for the man they believed was about become the next House Majority Whip.
Within two hours, they were in mourning.
After losing his bid to become Whip to Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana conservative, Roskam became the second House Republican leadership casualty to the Tea Party in as many weeks. On Thursday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Whip was overwhelmingly elected to take Eric Cantor’s spot as Majority Leader, leaving his Whip slot vacant. Scalise beat Roskam and Tea Party candidate Marlin Stutzman of Indiana. (The post of chief deputy whip is appointed by the Whip, and Scalise is unlikely to appoint his former rival to the position.)
Republican leaders hope Scalise’s ascension will satiate the Tea Party beast that claimed Cantor’s scalp so ignominiously in a primary last week, at least for a while. Elevating McCarthy, the most conservative member from liberal California, to Majority Leader did nothing to shake things up. But Scalise brings new blood to the team: He is the only Tea Partier and, excluding Texans Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, he’s the first Republican leader to be chosen from the South since Newt Gingrich resigned as House Speaker in 1999.
The night before the election, Scalise, who was elected in 2008 to fill Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s seat, ate dinner with more than 40 of his vote wranglers at a true-to-his-roots restaurant—Acadiana, a Louisiana-style fish house in Washington. There he handed out red wooden “Bring the Wood”—a football term meaning to play with extra violence or force—bats recently shipped from his state. Stutzman and his team then stayed up late in a room outside his Capitol Hill office with supporters, updating Excel spreadsheets as the undecided were called.
“Adrenaline keeps you going through to tomorrow,” Scalise told TIME Wednesday. “We’ve prepared for all scenarios—one ballot, two ballots, three ballots—whatever it takes we’re working hard until the end to win the race.”
In the end, he won it in a single ballot, showing a surprising amount of support in a three-way race where an absolute majority of the conference is needed to win. As far as Tea Partiers go, Scalise is of the relatively more mild persuasion. He was elected chair of the 170-member conservative Republican Study Committee in early 2013, but only after overcoming the reservations of some of his more activist members that he was too close to the leadership. Stutzman had run to Scalise’s right, trying to argue Scalise wasn’t conservative enough. In his new role, Scalise will be expected to bridge two arms of a party that often spends as much time hitting itself as it does the Democrats.
Scalise will face his first challenge in January, when he will be expected to help defend his fellow leaders from Tea Party challenges at the start of the next Congress. Jeb Hensarling of Texas sat out these elections so he might have a chance to take down House Speaker John Boehner next year. And Stutzman and Raul Labrador, who unsuccessfully challenged McCarthy this week for Majority Leader, could run again, especially if the Tea Party continues to surprise in this season’s primaries.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been making hay out of the GOP “disarray.” “Eric Cantor was the head of the House obstructionist caucus,” Democratic National Committee spokesman said in an email. “Yet he lost his primary seemingly for not being obstructionist or extremist enough. So does anybody really think the new House GOP leadership is going to be any better? Well, we already know the answer to that. The leading candidates running in today’s leadership election supported the government shutdown, support more hearings on Benghazi, and wasted so much time voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”
Can any one man heal the Tea Party-establishment rift in the Republican Party? Scalise will attempt to find out, or perhaps he’ll find himself on his own grim procession to a leadership vote where the fate of his position is uncertain, and Pastor Walberg quoting to him Proverbs 22:12: “The eyes of the Lord keep watch over knowledge, but he frustrates the words of the unfaithful.”