A confident Sessions predicted in an interview that he would beat the race’s presumed front-runner, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, arguing that as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee during the tea party wave of 2010, he won as many allies as McCarthy, and that as the current chairman of the Rules Committee, he is ready to manage the House floor.
“I’ll be a majority leader who will be clear-headed about what we’re going to try to accomplish, putting more focus on what we’re trying to sell,” Sessions said, adding that he has a “strong and open” relationship with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “I know how to win, I did it at the NRCC, and I will help us win majorities.”
With McCarthy moving quickly to confirm the backing of the leadership’s regular supporters, Sessions worked — in his committee room and at his personal office in the Rayburn House Office Building — to start to put together a coalition of House Republicans who have clashed with McCarthy and outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), who was defeated Tuesday in a primary contest.
“Look -- the best things Eric did were internal tactics, having us understand what to do,” he said. “The stumbling block has been having us understand how to sell it. Increasingly, we find as we go home every weekend, we’re faced with people who don’t understand where we are headed or how we’re going to get there.”
“It’s time for a new direction,” he added. “Let’s get us selling policies together, with a leadership that believes in what it’s doing and wants to work with all parts of our conference. I would be candid and work well with John Boehner to make sure we got to where we need to be.”
Sessions is aggressively pitching himself as the harder-edged conservative alternative to McCarthy, an easygoing Californian associated with efforts led by Cantor to modernize and at times moderate parts of the Republican message on immigration reform and fiscal strategy. Sessions said he would fight to have a proudly right-wing conference with a message on immigration that is “border security, border security, and border security.”
“I was an original member of the tea party caucus and I understand those issues,” Sessions said. “In the era of Barack Obama, our country is at risk. We need to look back to the Constitution and work within that.”
In March, Sessions beat back a conservative challenger who was endorsed by Sarah Palin in his congressional primary, shrugging off her criticism that his votes for the 2008 bank bailouts and increasing the federal borrowing limit were marks of moderation.
Sessions challenged McCarthy once before when both ran for whip following the 2010 elections, when the GOP won the House majority and McCarthy, then chief recruiter for the NRCC, ascended as a force. Ever since he was beaten by McCarthy, their relations have been tense, with Sessions, a 59-year-old former marketer for a telecommunications company, viewing McCarthy, 49, as an upstart who didn’t fully earn his high-ranking post.
One hurdle for Sessions beyond McCarthy’s strength may be a fellow Texan, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, who spent Wednesday mulling his own bid for majority leader. Sessions is aware of Hensarling’s interest but said he would stay in the race regardless. Another struggle will be the short time frame: The election for majority leader will be held June 19, giving him about two weeks to make up ground with McCarthy, who has a deep network of support.
Sessions’s efforts began in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, when he began to send a torrent of text messages to friends about his interest in succeeding Cantor, his mobile phone beeping and ringing for hours as associates texted back, some with vague encouragement and others with hearty endorsements.
“The phone keeps ringing,” Sessions said optimistically. “I’m not sure how this will play out or even who is running, but if we want to better sell our agenda, we've got to have a better salesman.”