The Next House Speaker: the Guy With a David Duke Scandal or a Jan. 6 Ringleader

6 minute read

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When the up-and-coming state lawmaker got a phone call back in 2002 inviting him to speak to a convention at a Marriott hotel in Metairie, La., alarm bells didn’t go off, at least in his retelling of the tale. He had just one staffer working for him at the time and he wanted to get in front of as many people as possible. It didn’t click with then-state Rep. Steve Scalise or his aide that the group in question—the benign-sounding European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO—would be hosting white-supremacist leaders convened by a group once helmed by former Louisiana Ku Klux Klan leader and politician David Duke.

More than 20 years later, Scalise is now the closest thing House Republicans have to a leading candidate for Speaker, after a week of tumult that has left the lower chamber completely paralyzed. That 2002 meeting, along with Scalise having long ago reportedly likened himself to Duke without the baggage, has given more than a few Republicans jitters about making him the face of the party heading into a tricky election cycle for House members. (To be perfectly fair, the longtime Louisiana journalist who reported the Duke self-comparison in 2014 did so from memory and did not quote Scalise’s exact words, even if they are now considered widely verbatim comments around Washington.)

Even so, Scalise prevailed over Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio by a vote of 113 to 99 during a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday. But rather than go from there directly to the House floor for a vote, Scalise sent everyone home. It was a sign that the choice of a Speaker was far from finished. After all, a nomination alone does not a Speaker make.

As lawmakers left yet another closed-door 90-minute session on Thursday, there was a definite sense that Republicans were nowhere in their pick. With two vacancies in the House and a narrow majority, Scalise can afford just four defections among his own party. One CNN tally on Thursday afternoon had him definitely losing 20, with another 10 in peril. It is looking increasingly like the House will go through another weekend without a Speaker in place. 

While Scalise can’t close the deal, it’s not as if Jordan is exactly gaining momentum. His own pre-Congress past includes a troubling allegation that he looked the other way during his time as a wrestling coach at Ohio State during an era when a team doctor was accused of sexual assault. Oh, and Jordan was a senior architect of the efforts on Jan. 6, 2021, to deny Joe Biden the White House and to keep President Donald Trump in power despite his electoral loss in 2020.

Put simply: the Republican Party, at least at the moment, has its two leading figures to take over the House come with ready-made attacks just waiting, including mutual roles as adherents to The Big Lie

Mainstream Republicans are rightly skittish and annoyed that their colleagues are dusting off Democratic opposition to research to tank one of their own. When Scalise’s appearance to EURO first surfaced in 2014 during Scalise’s bid to ascend into leadership, his party stood by him without too much flinching. Now, that 21-year-old episode is convenient enough of a fig leaf to keep him from grabbing the gavel. Jordan, too, has seemingly erased the memories of those who once mocked his coaching-era allegations as “Gym Jordan.” Jordan says he will nominate Scalise, but no one truly thinks his ambitions are expired.

The longer this drags out, the longer it looks like Republicans don’t deserve to be running anything because, frankly, they’re currently running nothing. And, seemingly by the hour, more lawmakers are hardening their opposition to both as they look for an alternative that would not make for ready-made anchors to their own re-election bids next year.

All of which leaves the 18 Republicans running for re-election next year in districts that Biden carried in 2020 all the more sensitive to the choices their colleagues are (maybe) making this week. Scalise’s proximity to racism and Jordan’s embrace of political violence both are seen as legitimate reasons to keep either out of a position that is behind only the Vice President in the line of presidential succession. And, as Democrats in marginal districts can tell anyone, being tied to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was none too helpful after years of being pilloried as all that is wrong with the opposition party. 

For now, Jordan is laying in wait should the party fail to fall in line behind Scalise, and the GOP’s base is still craning its necks for what might not exist: a candidate who could unite the party with sufficient support to get the House moving again. After all, the government runs out of cash again next month; Scalise has told colleagues he wants to finish work on the eight remaining funding bills to get the government open through next Oct. 1, while Jordan is proposing a stopgap effort to let the new Speaker get acclimated. It may seem like a meaningful policy difference that could matter in picking a leader, but ultimately it is little more than an excuse for a selection process guided as much by grievance and personality as by any governing agenda. 

And that, right there, may be the identity of the current GOP more than any ideological rift: do they want to get the work done, or do they want to use every opportunity possible to make life difficult for Democrats, including Biden? Left unrealized, of course, is that for every partisan win of Owning The Libs, they’re actually making their own long-term prospects as a responsible conservative alternative more difficult to claim. That, without question, leaves democracy in an ever weaker state.

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