As the race to replace House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) began Wednesday afternoon, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his allies adopted a motto: Speed kills.
Using his deep network of supporters, deputy whips and a paper-based scoring system that dates back to the House leadership races of the 1990s, McCarthy and his team were asserting momentum Wednesday night in the race to become the second-ranking House Republican, hoping to swiftly seal the deal as other contenders were still mulling whether to join the fray.
The results won’t be known until next Thursday, when House Republicans plan to meet behind closed doors to anoint new lieutenants for Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Cantor threw his “full support” behind McCarthy on Wednesday afternoon, saying his close friend would make an “outstanding” majority leader.
The 49-year-old California native enjoys cozy ties with many of the Republicans elected in the 2010 tea party wave. He is a strong fundraiser with a tireless work ethic and seen as the candidate of the party’s establishment.
But McCarthy will face a challenge from at least two others.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, launched his campaign for majority leader Wednesday by promising to be a voice for conservatives who have clashed with current leaders.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Finance Services Committee, remained coy about his plans but didn’t dispute he was considering a run.
McCarthy launched his bid Wednesday after spending Tuesday night consoling Cantor and dozens of rattled colleagues by phone, according to aides. In the conversations, McCarthy told colleagues he wouldn’t make a decision about his political future until Cantor made his own.
Late Tuesday, aides were beginning to plot strategy in order to launch quickly on Wednesday. Several staffers were spotted conferring late Tuesday night in McCarthy’s first-floor office suite at the U.S. Capitol as news reports of Cantor’s unexpected loss aired on a television set overhead.
Restless Wednesday morning, McCarthy skipped breakfast and began to work in his office around 7 a.m. in order to start planning a campaign that would launch a few hours later. At lunchtime, he left the U.S. Capitol to hold a fundraiser for Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and returned to hold a series of calls and meetings once news leaked that Cantor would be stepping down.
McCarthy is relying on a tight-knit inner circle as he seeks to lock up support. The group includes Reps. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) — an influential array of names in the House GOP conference.
The team is using a numerical ranking system once used by former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) that McCarthy still believes is a smart way to track friends and foes. All 233 House Republicans are given a numerical ranking between one and five. A “1” means the colleague is a loyalist, while a “5” denotes a critic or someone who needs more convincing. Rankings for individual members are a closely guarded secret, aides said, but provide McCarthy with critical intelligence on who might need extra attention. Aides cautioned that the internal rankings would remain fluid up until votes are cast in the leadership race next Thursday.
McCarthy’s loyalists are taking talk of bids by Sessions and Hensarling seriously, aides said.
Sessions began texting colleagues Tuesday night asking to speak with them about his bid for majority leader. His top advisers were actively positioning him for the race.
A confident Sessions predicted in an interview with The Washington Post that he would beat McCarthy, arguing that he’s locked up as many allies as McCarthy thanks to the time he spent as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee during the tea party wave of 2010. And as the current chairman of the Rules Committee, Sessions said he is ready to manage the House floor.
Hensarling, meanwhile, was seen conferring on the House floor Wednesday afternoon with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a key conservative broker.
Walking into a lunchtime meeting with members of the Republican Study Committee, supporters of Hensarling were calling him the right flank’s leading candidate for majority leader, with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former chairman of the RSC, giving his blessing to Hensarling’s potential candidacy. Rep Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a high-profile libertarian-leaning Republican, also endorsed Hensarling.
McCarthy’s associates have adopted the motto that “speed kills” in leadership races. They’re modeling their effort on previously successful GOP leadership campaigns, when DeLay and Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) won top spots after moving quickly in an organized fashion and acting as consensus candidates to hold together a volatile conference.
On the sidelines watching the developments is Boehner, who is not expected to weigh in on the leadership race, even though he will face questions about the future of his leadership team at his weekly on-camera press briefing Thursday morning.
The vote to replace Cantor next week is expected to unfold much like previous contests to fill top spots, according to senior GOP leadership aides. To outside observers, the contest will mirror the secrecy of a papal election and the elimination rules of a televised singing contest.
A candidate for majority leader must earn a majority of the votes of his 232 colleagues. If three or more candidates run for the same position and none earns a majority (hypothetically, a three-way race between McCarthy, Sessions and Hensarling), the lowest vote-getter drops out of the race and members will re-vote.
If McCarthy ultimately prevails next Thursday, Boehner will immediately call a vote to fill the whip’s job, leaving no time for another prolonged campaigning period.
No matter who wins or loses, aides insist the vote tally will never be known, except for the few members who count paper ballots and then destroy them.
Paul Kane and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.