This story has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
A sudden swell of enthusiasm for Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to make a late-entry bid into the race for House majority leader faded almost as quickly as it began.
After being talked up by allies on Tuesday, Gowdy, who chairs the House Select Committee on Benghazi, decided against running for the House GOP’s No. 2 post before his possible campaign could gain momentum among his colleagues.
“I’m not running. I’m staying on the Benghazi committee,” Gowdy said in an interview off the House floor before votes at 3:55 p.m. “One hundred percent I am staying on the Benghazi committee.”
Gowdy denied that he was ever really close to becoming a candidate for one of the House’s top jobs. “Not really. Have I ever run for a leadership position? I’ve never run for one…. I am staying on the Benghazi committee. Period. Exclamation point.”
The South Carolina conservative said he wouldn’t accept a draft effort to be majority leader because he has to choose between being in leadership and staying on the committee, where he has been aggressively digging into Hillary Clinton’s role in the response to the 2012 attacks on two U.S. compound,s as well as whether her private e-mail server contains information related to it.
“You can’t do both, so you think I’m being coy and I think I’m being obvious,” Gowdy said of being on the Benghazi committee and accepting a leadership position.
He added that the press should “quit letting” allies like Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) “speak for him.”
Gowdy’s roller-coaster ride is a testament to the restiveness among the chamber’s younger generation of conservatives, who want more than assurances from above about their influence in the wake of the resignation announcement of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). They want a high-profile seat at the leadership table — and to inject some swagger into a party that for months has been meekly navigating through infighting and chaos.
Enter Gowdy, 51, an uber-confident, spiky-haired former prosecutor who chaired the House Select Committee on Benghazi to acclaim from the party’s grass-roots as it investigated Hillary Rodham Clinton. In recent days, Gowdy’s allies, all under the age of 50 — including Reps. Mick Mulvaney (S.C.) and Utah’s Mia Love and Chaffetz — stoked talk that Gowdy could indeed be drafted.
But it was not to be.
The movement picked up speed Monday night when conservatives huddled with each other on Capitol Hill. Mulvaney, who is part of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hardliners, pitched Gowdy to his circle, and Chaffetz, who chairs the Oversight committee, sent the word to his own network. Love, a freshman and the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, did the same.
By Tuesday morning, as coffee-toting members strolled through the Capitol basement on their way to a weekly Republican gathering, the House GOP was abuzz that Gowdy was perhaps going to run, even though the South Carolina Republican hadn’t yet made a call to his group of friends.
Chaffetz held court with reporters, winking as he all but confirmed Gowdy’s intentions. Love sent out a formal endorsement that made headlines. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who may be the lawmaker closest to Gowdy in Congress, wrote teasingly on Twitter: “Been getting a few questions this morning… all I can say is Majority Leader Gowdy sounds like a great idea.”
Gowdy’s spokesman was coy, saying Gowdy appreciated the support and he looked forward to meeting with his colleagues later Tuesday for a conference-wide meeting. The session will officially be a forum about the future of the House GOP post-Boehner, but unofficially an opportunity for leadership contenders to jockey for position and campaign.
During his scrum, Chaffetz captured the budding rationale for Gowdy, at least among his supporters in the party’s younger ranks, with a sentence: “He can make the case and persuade a jury better than anyone else I’ve ever met.”
By Tuesday afternoon, however, Gowdy, who is preparing to question Clinton when she appears before his committee next month, sought to throw some cold water on the simmering draft movement. “After talking w/ [Gowdy] for 20 minutes, he made it clear that he is OUT of any consideration for any leadership position,” Mulvaney wrote in a midday Twitter message.
Whether Gowdy could have beaten the the current contenders — House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) — was far from guaranteed. Leadership contests are as much about relationships as about who is the more talented communicator. But the brief rise of another Southern conservative was telling, especially against a pair who share his ideological and geographical profile, reflective of a desire for a different attitude at the top.
Scalise is popular with members but a low-key presence who prefers to build ties over long dinners of Cajun food in his first-floor office suite. Price is a taciturn, respected conservative who has devoted his career to limiting government spending.
When coupled with the mild-mannered House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is the front-runner to win the race for speaker, many House Republicans were looking at an upper echelon of leadership that lacked a firebrand, despite widespread frustration among base voters. They wanted the kind of leader who could and would happily tangle with Democrats on cable news.
That’s why Gowdy, according to several veteran House Republicans who watched his maneuvers, had a shot. He may not have Price’s reservoir of knowledge on fiscal matters or Scalise’s ability to count votes and take members’ temperature. But Gowdy represents what many younger conservatives feel is necessary after Boehner: a change in presentation. And as part of the tea party wave of 2010, he would have been a visible symbol of their ascendancy.
For now, it appears that the Gowdy’s campaign will remain a notion rather than a reality. It could easily be revived if the majority-leader contest, which is conducted by secret ballot, takes an unexpected turn.
Regardless, the way the draft unfolded over the past 24 hours is a moment that McCarthy and others will surely remember as they assume their new posts. House Republicans have an appetite for a house cleaning and new furniture, even if, for the time being, they are moving coolly toward the status quo.
David Weigel contributed to this report.
Correction: The original headline due to an editor’s mistake said Gowdy was considering running for House speaker, when he was actually eyeing the majority leader contest.