By Molly K. Hooper - 11/02/10 10:00 AM EDT
A big night for House Republicans on Tuesday could be followed up with a contested race for the No. 3 post in the leadership hierarchy.
Most nonpartisan experts believe Republicans will win control of the House, setting the stage for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) to become Speaker and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to assume the majority-leader post.
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) is expected to run for president or governor and not seek a leadership position in 2011.
Some say National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) would be in line for the whip position. Rewarding Sessions with the high-profile post would make sense after he’d helped Republicans climb out of their minority status, according to political observers.
But others say Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who heads the NRCC’s recruitment efforts, is also eyeing the job and would pose a significant challenge to Sessions.
A historic outcome on Tuesday could present Boehner with a difficult choice.
Sessions is a longtime Boehner ally who rallied for the Ohio Republican when he faced off against Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) for House majority leader in 2006.
McCarthy is Cantor’s deputy, and some say that could pose a problem for Boehner if the Ohio lawmaker and Cantor have disagreements in 2011.
But McCarthy is very close with former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), whom he replaced in 2007. Thomas delivered the closing argument for Boehner to the House GOP conference in the 2006 majority-leader race. Moreover, Boehner tapped McCarthy to take a leading role in crafting the House GOP “Pledge to America.”
While the House Democratic leader appoints the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), House Republicans vote on the chairman of the NRCC. However, Boehner’s endorsement — should he make one — would carry enormous sway.
A well-connected House GOP insider told The Hill that Sessions’s intention to run for whip has been “widely discussed, but it would set up a collision course with McCarthy.”
Another GOP source said the scenario would be similar to the choice Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had to make when Democrats won control of the House in 2006 and her close supporter, the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), challenged then-Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for majority leader.
Pelosi endorsed Murtha, but Hoyer won easily.
The GOP source said Boehner could encourage Sessions to remain head of the NRCC for another cycle. After the 2008 election, Pelosi persuaded then-DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) to run the committee for another cycle. Van Hollen agreed — a decision some have since said was unwise.
Former Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.) led the NRCC in the 1994 GOP revolution, and remained as chairman of the campaign arm in 1996.
Sessions, who is serving his seventh term, may make the case that he has far more seniority than McCarthy, who was elected four years ago.
Sessions, sources say, could have been the difference in the Boehner/Blunt contest. Sessions secured the key votes of Texas House GOP lawmakers to support Boehner, who ended up replacing Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Boehner and DeLay were not close, but Sessions convinced a few Texas Republicans to back Boehner.
“Sessions was critical in getting a few votes from Texas … [Boehner and Sessions] have been friends for a long time … in that February ’06 race, Pete was there for him,” the source said.
Boehner did not publicly back Sessions in late 2006 for the NRCC post, but did endorse him after the 2008 elections.
Since taking on that role, Sessions has raised or donated $2,152,153 to the NRCC. His total contributions to candidates (including money from PETE PAC and his personal campaign, the Pete Sessions for Congress fund) total $720,500, a GOP source revealed to The Hill.
“Chairman Sessions has personally campaigned and raised funds in more than 150 districts,” the source said, noting that the NRCC has “experienced strong gains in fundraising, including October 2010 as the NRCC’s best fundraising month on record.”
Various GOP House members have told The Hill, in passing, that if Republicans win the election, then Sessions can have “any job he wants.”
McCarthy, however, is regarded as a rising star of the party, and is well-respected by his colleagues. McCarthy is more accessible to the media and has raised his profile over the last couple of years.
Sessions, meanwhile, attracted criticism after he appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this summer. Democrats repeatedly touted Sessions’s comment that “We need to go back to the exact same agenda” as a clear signal congressional Republicans are still embracing the policies of former President George W. Bush.
Still, Sessions has been widely praised for involving dozens of House Republicans to play leading roles at the NRCC.
Even though McCarthy has not said whether he will run for the whip position, sources encouraging the affable former GOP California State Assembly leader to launch a bid say he would have the votes.
Since he was selected to head the NRCC candidate-recruitment effort, McCarthy has “given a total of $1.6 million from his PAC. He has donated $762,000 to the NRCC and helped raise hundreds of thousands more. He’s given $500,000-plus to new candidates and $790,000 to candidates and members combined,” a source close to the leadership told The Hill.
“He’s visited more than 100 districts and, as recruitment chair, recruited a record number of candidates this election cycle — 430. Additionally, his Young Guns program, founded with Eric Cantor and [Rep.] Paul Ryan [R-Wis.], has given $9.5 million to candidates,” the source revealed.
Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), who beat Sessions for the NRCC chairman slot in 2006 and lost to him in 2008, said McCarthy would win a head-to-head match-up with Sessions. But Cole doesn’t think it will get to that point.
“I don’t think that will happen, but if it does, I think Kevin McCarthy will win the race, and he’ll win it not only because he’s the current deputy whip but because he’s on the whip team. He’s done a brilliant job with the Young Guns and with the ‘Pledge.’ I think it’s widely assumed in conference that he’s earned the whip spot if Eric Cantor moves up to leader, as we all assume he will,” Cole said.
Boehner’s, McCarthy’s and Sessions’s offices declined to comment for this article.