By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006
When the House speaker's job opened up in 1998, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) -- a telegenic policy intellectual from the nation's most populous state -- seemed like a logical candidate. Cox certainly thought so. He brooded over his options and mused about a possible run on CNN.
But while Cox was in the studio, J. Dennis Hastert was winning the cloakroom. With powerful backing from Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Hastert -- a decidedly untelegenic, nuts-and-bolts pol from small-town Illinois -- was working the phones, cutting deals and forming alliances. Within hours, he locked down the most powerful job in Congress.
DeLay's decision to give up the majority leader's post for good has thrown the House into its first leadership race since 1998, and the lessons of the Hastert episode still echo. Congressional leadership contests, in which politicians are both the candidates and the voters, are a special kind of art form.
Though hundreds of the 435 House members probably have the ambition to lead the chamber, only a few have the right combination of personal relationships, tactical smarts and mettle to make it happen. Those who have what it takes routinely jump the line over much more senior colleagues in a way that was uncommon in earlier eras.
The first rule of leadership races, several lawmakers said, is that fortune favors the bold. Reps. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the acting majority leader, barely waited for the ink to dry on DeLay's farewell letter earlier this month before jumping into the race for the second-ranking job.
A quick start allows the aspirants to start locking up votes, cutting deals and discouraging others from running, as Hastert did in his 1998 triumph. It also gives them a head start in digging up unfavorable information on the their opponents, which sources said both the Blunt and Boehner camps are doing aggressively.
Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) did not get in early but is considering a bid -- hoping he can shake up the race by casting himself as a reform-minded alternative to Blunt and Boehner, both of whom have extensive ties to lobbyists.
The quick-start strategy appears to be working best for Rep. Eric I. Cantor (Va.), a conservative from Richmond who was the first to enter the race for majority whip -- the third-ranking GOP post, with responsibility for counting votes and keeping members happy. Cantor, who arrived in the House just five years ago, had a detailed plan in place long before DeLay stepped aside, and he implemented it immediately. Three potential rivals were still deliberating, to their apparent detriment.
"There are a lot of people in leadership just because they were the first in," said former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), who ran Newt Gingrich's first leadership-election bid in 1989.
But the quick entrance must be done with tact, lawmakers said, in this case by praising DeLay's tenure, informing Hastert and emphasizing publicly that the campaign is about saving the GOP caucus, not satisfying personal ambitions.
The most important factor in leadership races is that the logic of general elections -- in which candidates often vie to claim the center -- does not apply. The GOP conference is dominated by antiabortion, anti-gay-rights, pro-tax-cuts and pro-military members, who demand the same of their leaders. So the 30 or so moderate Republicans in the caucus need not apply in most cases.
In the opening hours of the race for majority leader, Boehner and Blunt argued over who is the more purebred conservative. Blunt's allies whispered about Boehner's prominent role in passing the No Child Left Behind Act, which many conservatives deride for its expansion of the federal role in local education and its high price tag. Sensitive to this charge, Boehner told members he was more committed than the current leaders to ending pork-barrel spending.
But ideology is not the only factor. There has been some talk of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (Calif.) running. By the standards of the GOP caucus, he is middle-of-the-road. His biggest burden, say associates, is an abrasive personality -- a problem in a contest in which popularity matters.
"He is tacitly brilliant, but he has found a way to alienate almost everybody in the conference," said a veteran of leadership elections.
In some ways, a leadership race resembles a race for student body president. Boehner is an affable, fun-loving member who often shares a smoke with colleagues between votes and who is perhaps best known for hosting popular fundraising bashes attended by lawmakers, lobbyists and staff members. Blunt is more reserved and introspective, less of a glad-hander than Boehner.
"I think personality plays a big role," said Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), who is backing Boehner.
The voting is done in secret and details of the outcome are never revealed, so members are free to vote for their favorite candidate -- even if they had promised their vote to someone else.
One of the most popular ways to curry support is to buy it. It is an unspoken prerequisite that a candidate has to be an aggressive fundraiser who has campaigned for GOP candidates and, more important, has directed tens of thousands of dollars to the campaign accounts of his or her colleagues.
The only difference this year is how aggressive a candidate can be in boasting about it. Boehner, Blunt and Cantor are all near the top of the list of Republican contributors to fellow Republicans, but they are not mentioning their money-raising skills in public in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal.
Republicans ushered in what might be called a performance-based leadership structure -- in which favors and popularity matter more than seniority -- in 1989. Dick Cheney, then a House member from Wyoming who was serving as GOP whip, was tapped as secretary of defense. What followed was a memorable race between then-Rep. Edward R. Madigan (Ill.) and a young Gingrich (Ga.), which underscored why these intramural contests can have big consequences. Gingrich, then a back-bench conservative seeking change inside the GOP, beat Madigan by a single vote -- setting in motion a broader leadership challenge that five years later would result in the Republican takeover of Congress and Gingrich's rise to the speakership.
Victory can turn an ordinary lawmaker into a power broker. The spoils include a bigger salary and staff, a large office inside the Capitol instead of a small one across the street, and a seat at the leadership table inside the speaker's office. At a time when power is centralized in Congress, a few leaders decide what legislation to pass and when, and which members will become chairmen and gain seats on the most influential committees. The leaders are invited to the White House for strategy sessions -- and are invited on the best trips by the most influential special interests. Lobbyists flock to these members' offices in hopes of raising money for the members and currying favor with them. The more money they raise, the more powerful they become.
All of which explains why these races are run with sharp elbows. Blunt, Boehner and Cantor are all following the winning formula started by Gingrich: Create teams of close allies to secure the votes of specific groups of lawmakers based on philosophical, geographic and generational breakdowns. Blunt and Boehner have announced teams of about two dozen members who are assisting their operations.
Those already in the leadership are at an advantage early on -- they have access to a database that can help them reach colleagues and top staff members at home or at their favorite vacation spots.
The candidates create their own database to track votes, with some assigning numbers to track how committed they believe their supporters are. They double- and triple-check the promised votes -- and try to persuade House members to go public with their support. Candidates like to secure the backing of big-name committee chairmen or leaders of voting blocs as a show of force.
Some members who decide not to run try to form a voting bloc to influence the race or to force concessions on the party's agenda, committee assignments or other matters. In this case, the Republican Study Group, an alliance of about 100 conservatives led by Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), is the big prize.
Pence said he will remain neutral at least until the group meets later this month to discuss the election and consider endorsements.
Many members of Pence's group want to hold off in anticipation of the one thing that makes these races often impossible to handicap -- the unexpected twist. This is what Shadegg is hoping for. In this case, the political environment is hostile to big-money Republicans, and younger lawmakers might come to the conclusion that neither Blunt nor Boehner would offer the clean break from the DeLay era that the party needs to move beyond the scandal.