Inside the wood-paneled hearing room of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) turned on the song “Eye of the Tiger.” As it blared in the background, Scalise walked out beaming, with a procession of Republicans in suits behind him.
“All right,” Scalise said. “Let’s go win.”
On Thursday, Scalise was elected to the position of majority whip, becoming the House’s third-ranking Republican. He did it by selling himself as a hard-edged conservative, and by employing the low-tech political stagecraft of a college student-council election.
He had stickers. He had free food. And he had a list of phone numbers, in case anybody forgot to show up.
“A win for America,” Scalise called it, after his colleagues had checked the secret ballots and found his name written on the majority of them.
Thursday was one of the most dramatic days in the House in years, as Republicans sought to fill the seat occupied by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.). Cantor was unexpectedly beaten in a party primary June 10, setting up a snap election just nine days later.
The race to fill Cantor’s seat, however, turned out to be the least dramatic of the day.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who was the majority whip, was the clear favorite in the race to become the House’s second-ranking Republican as majority leader. He had been campaigning hard to replace Cantor, starting just hours after Cantor lost in a party primary.
His opponent, Rep. Raúl Labrador (Idaho), wanted to be the conservative alternative to McCarthy. But Labrador started late and never got close. After it was evident that McCarthy had won, Labrador stood up and called for the vote to be declared unanimous as a signal of party unity.
The caucus roared its approval. The one thing Labrador had done well was handle defeat.
Then came the day’s real drama, the election of majority whip. There were three candidates vying to take the spot that McCarthy was vacating and become the House GOP’s official arm-twister and vote-counter.
There was Scalise, the head of the right-wing caucus within the House GOP. Scalise, elected in 2008, sold himself as a voice of the South, and of red-state Republicans more broadly. Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), the top Republican in the House, after all, was from a swing state, McCarthy from solid-blue California.
On Wednesday night, Scalise had hosted 40 allies at Acadiana, an upscale Louisiana Creole restaurant in the District. Even in a powerful institution like the House, the strength of a candidacy is measured by its free food. And Scalise’s food was solid.
At that gathering, Scalise also handed out red baseball bats. It was meant to be a message of toughness, that Scalise would be harder to say “no” to than the genial McCarthy. This, apparently, would be a whip for whom actual whips were not a strong enough metaphor.
The other major candidate was Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), who has been in Congress since 2007 and served as McCarthy’s deputy whip. Roskam’s pitch was that he had already worked closely with the GOP leadership and would be a candidate of stability.
He spent Wednesday afternoon telling that to the House’s older members, who have been there long enough to remember when there was stability. Roskam knows “how to run the trains on time,” as Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), Roskam’s main campaign strategist, put it to reporters. He offered free food, too: burgers from Good Stuff Eatery, served to supporters in his office.
The long shot was Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (Ind.), elected in 2010. His pitch was that he would be a more conservative whip than even Scalise. But Stutzman’s backup plan was to be a kingmaker. If he couldn’t beat Scalise or Roskam, supporters hoped, he could at least take enough of the vote that neither man could win on the first ballot. Then, he could send his supporters to one or the other, perhaps in a deal that would get Stutzman appointed deputy whip.
By Thursday morning, it seemed like Stutzman’s rivals weren’t too scared.
“No deals with anybody,” Scalise said as he hurried into his office, his phone pressed to his ear. “We’re going to win this thing.”
As Thursday went on, the politicking ramped up. Scalise led his procession, with his theme song rocking. Roskam had also aimed for a similar kind of choreography. But his procession was smaller: About a half-dozen lawmakers gathered to walk with him to the meeting. “Roskam! Roskam!” chanted Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) as she arrived.
“I think we are peaking at the exact right hour,” Roskam said as he headed to the election.
Stutzman, the third candidate, had an entourage so small it didn’t fill an elevator.
He was accompanied by his wife, Christy, in a bright red dress. They stepped into an elevator with Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Polis’ small dog, Gia. “This has been a really good experience for me,” Stutzman said. “Whatever happens today, I’ll help our conference.” Then the door opened, the dog ran toward the daylight, Polis tried to catch up, and Stutzman turned right.
Outside the door, Scalise aides stood with clipboards, adorned with stickers reading “Geaux Scalise.” They had lists of legislators expected to vote for Scalise, including their phone numbers. They were taking attendance. Any missing supporter received an urgent phone call from Scalise’s camp.
The room filled, and the votes began. McCarthy was chosen first. Then came the whip election. As the tally was counted, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) asked his colleagues to turn off their cell phones in an attempt to keep the details of the vote from leaking.
Seconds later, a handful of House members sent text messages to a Washington Post reporter. They relayed Gohmert’s demand and said they would ignore him.
Then the ballots — yellow slips of paper, with names written on them in pencil — were read, checked and announced. Stutzman, who was hoping to split the vote and make a deal, did neither. He lost, straight up. Later, he was asked if Scalise had asked him to be one of his deputy whips.
Stutzman said no.
“He’s busy. They are doing other stuff already,” he said. “We, of course, shook hands. I congratulated him. I’m really proud of him. He’s worked tremendously hard.”
Afterward, Cantor slipped out a back door. McCarthy accepted congratulations. Scalise walked the House floor in triumph, carrying his young son.
But, before Thursday was even over, the House’s two new GOP leaders got a hint of how many other people — outside conservative groups, even other Republicans in Congress — want to lead their troops instead.
At 4 p.m., immediately following the leadership elections, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — who has repeatedly encouraged House conservatives to defy their leaders — sent an e-mail to a large group of conservative House Republicans.
Cruz invited them to meet with him June 24 for an “off-the-record gathering” and “an evening of discussion and fellowship.”
Pizza, Cruz told them, will be served.