Money talks in House leadership jockeying

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Top House Republicans are ramping up their fundraising efforts with an eye on potential leadership races if Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) does not stick around for another term.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) all donated heavily to their House colleagues and Republican candidates in March, picking up their giving pace as attention increasingly turns to the midterm elections in November.

Fundraising is an important factor in internal leadership battles, and while Cantor and McCarthy are looking to shore up their positions atop the totem pole, Roskam and Hensarling are seen as potential contenders for senior posts in the future. Roskam now serves under McCarthy as chief deputy whip, while the conservative Hensarling heads the Financial Services Committee after serving in the leadership until last year.

Boehner remains the party’s fundraising king, collecting $54 million for himself and the GOP in 2013 and another $4.5 million for his own committees in the first three months of this year, according to his staff. He has sought, in recent weeks, to tamp down in both public and in private speculation that he might retire at the end of the year, insisting he plans to run for Speaker again and that his standing within the Republican conference is as strong as it has ever been.

The money race is run almost entirely behind the scenes. Officially, lawmakers under Boehner are all “focused on their current job,” according to the standard response from their spokesmen, and while a few members have publicly declared their interest in committee spots coming open, none have announced their candidacies for leadership posts now held by others.

But the jockeying for a post-Boehner era has already begun, and some ardent conservatives are beginning to talk openly about either finding someone to challenge the Speaker or demanding that one of their own hold a top position on the leadership team.

Long considered Boehner’s heir apparent, Cantor has given more than $1.8 million to Republican incumbents, candidates and party committees from his leadership political action committee since the beginning of 2013, more than twice that of any other House Republican, according to the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission. Cantor gave $175,000 in March alone, representing more than half his total for this year.

In reality, their contributions are even bigger: The FEC reports do not include money that party leaders like Cantor, who travels regularly, raise directly for candidates at fundraising events.

McCarthy, Hensarling and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have each given more than $500,000 to fellow Republicans during the current election cycle, and all three significantly boosted their totals in March. Ryan is another top fundraising draw as the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and a potential candidate for president in 2016, but the Budget Committee chairman has ruled out serving in the party leadership. He is instead likely to take the reins of the Ways and Means Committee from the retiring Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.).

McCarthy, the third-ranking member of leadership, would be the front-runner to move up to majority leader when Boehner retires and if Cantor succeeds him. But after three years in which the party has failed numerous times to pass crucial bills off the House floor, the man responsible for rounding up votes might not be a lock to advance. Aides to potential rivals say he could be vulnerable if conservatives demand a bigger seat at the leadership table in the next Congress, whether Boehner remains as speaker.

Still, McCarthy personally recruited many members of the enormous Republican class of 2010 and has maintained solid relationships with junior lawmakers.

The biggest wild card might be Hensarling, a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee who left the fourth-ranking leadership post to take over the Financial Services Committee, also a top fundraising perch in Congress.

He has clashed on policy in recent months with Cantor over a flood insurance bill, and looming debates over the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program could create more tensions with the party leadership and the business community.

With conservative support and backing from the Texas delegation — the largest GOP state bloc in the House — Hensarling could make a formidable challenger to Boehner or Cantor. FEC filings show he has given money to a similar mix of incumbent Republicans and top challengers that other party leaders have. But he has given no outward indication he is interested in a leadership bid, and aides and lobbyists privately say he did not enjoy his time in leadership in 2011 and 2012.

“He has been weirdly coy about what his future plans are,” said one lobbyist who has heard Hensarling speak at private events. “He’s inscrutable.”

If Boehner retires and McCarthy moves up behind Cantor, the race for whip could be a free-for-fall. Roskam has stepped up his fundraising efforts, according to people close to him. The Illinois Republican has held 50 events in 2014 and raised $750,000 during the first quarter. He gave $55,000 to fellow Republicans from his leadership PAC in March, a big boost from the prior months.

“We’re ramping it up,” said one Roskam aide.

He could face competition from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the conference chairwoman and highest-ranking woman in GOP leadership. She has lagged behind Roskam in contributions from her PAC, but an aide said she is also increasing her fundraising activity. The aide noted that she was the first Republican leader to give to Rep. Ralph Hall, the 90-year-old Texan who is in a competitive primary runoff to hold onto his seat for one last term. And McMorris Rodgers brought in $300,000 at a recent fundraiser for three Republican women challengers in New York.

Two other possible contenders, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas), have given less to their colleagues so far.

Scalise, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, has given just $69,000 to colleagues through his leadership PAC since the beginning of 2013, while Sessions, a former two-term chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and current head of the Rules Committee, has given $93,000 over the same period. 

A Scalise aide said he helps out colleagues when asked, while a Sessions aide noted that he has until recently been focused on fighting off a primary challenge.

The current chairman of the NRCC, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), might not be going anywhere for another term, particularly if Republicans expand their majority. A Walden aide said this week he has “every intention to serve again.”