Race for No. 4 GOP spot pits Tea Party vs. established Washington GOP

The race for GOP Conference Chair is heating up as Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Michele Bachmann attempt to paint themselves as the true conservative representative of their party.

The Minnesota Republican's decision to challenge Hensarling (R-Texas) for the conference post has left the former Republican Study Committee (RSC) chairman fighting against being labeled the “establishment” candidate in the race.

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Since declaring his candidacy Wednesday morning, Hensarling, a member of GOP Whip Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) deputy whip team, has collected a number of endorsements including Cantor, presumptive Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and outgoing GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

On Friday, however, Hensarling picked up a key endorsement from a lawmaker popular in the Tea Party movement.

Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn endorsed Hensarling in his bid to become the fourth-highest ranking Republican in the 112th Congress. Blackburn chose to endorse Hensarling over Bachmann and intends to whip up support for the former RSC chairman, her spokesman said.

"Members casting a vote for Conference Chair aren't deciding which is the true conservative candidate. We are deciding which true conservative we trust to speak for us. Michele has brought great energy to our party, and I know she will continue to do so. Jeb and I came to Congress together, and we have enjoyed a productive collaboration for many years. I trust Jeb's knowledge, experience and judgment when I vote for who will speak for me,” Blackburn said in a statement to The Hill.

Blackburn was considered to be among a handful of potential candidates for the conference chairmanship. It remains unclear if she will pursue a bid for other leadership posts at this time.

As a Tea Party favorite, Bachmann has attempted to portray herself as the would-be voice of “constitutional conservatives.”

But the tactic might be rubbing members the wrong way, according to a GOP aide familiar with the situation.

GOP lawmakers are becoming resentful that the Minnesota lawmaker, a close pal of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, is running as the only voice that would represent the Tea Party in leadership.

They say Hensarling has long fought for Tea Party goals such as limited government and reduced government spending.

“Members are getting resentful of Bachmann, who they say is making the argument that you’re not really a Tea Party supporter, unless you support her. That’s gone through the formation of the Tea Party Caucus and the formation of this candidacy of hers. It’s just not so,” the GOP aide told The Hill.

Cantor was asked on "Fox News Sunday" whether backing Hensarling over Bachmann was endorsing the "old boys' network" in Washington telling the Tea Party to wait its turn.

"You've got two conservatives in this race," Cantor said. "You have an incoming class that is probably more diverse and more reflective of a growing conservative majority in this country than I've seen since I've been here in Washington.

"And these individuals will be allowed to vote for which conservative that they choose," he said. "I mean, again, these are two conservatives. Neither individual could ever be accused of being anything but a conservative."


Bachmann, the Tea Party darling, argues the GOP should elect her as the House GOP’s effective spokesperson to show that the party respects the grassroots movement that helped propel them into majority status once again.

She made that point in the letter to her GOP colleagues last week announcing her candidacy.

“It is important that our Conference demonstrate to the people who sent us here that their concerns will be tirelessly advanced at the table of leadership,” Bachmann said in the letter obtained by The Hill.

Her candidacy was bolstered last week when Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), also a favorite of the Tea Party crowd, endorsed Bachmann’s bid.

“The Republican Conference Chair needs to be the best communicator we have. … Michele has charisma and she brings with her an impressive skill set. She embodies the agenda of the constitutional conservatives. Constitutional conservatives are the majority makers, the conscience of America and the new agenda setters,” King said.

Hensarling, who voted for the Medicare Part D program in 2003 alongside incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Cantor, says his record of fiscal conservatism and limited government demonstrates his adherence to Tea Party principles.

He said he's learned the lessons of living in a majority run amok with spending and bailouts.

The Texas Republican voted against then-President George W. Bush’s bank bailout program in 2008, as did Bachmann.

“Let me be clear: I have seen first-hand what happens when a party loses its way and ceases to live what it espouses. I fought it then and am committed to ensuring it never happens again,” Hensarling said in his announcement released Wednesday morning.

Hensarling has eyed the conference position for more than two years. He intended to run for the post in 2008 but bowed out after Pence, his close friend, was encouraged to run for the job by Boehner.

Hensarling ran Pence’s ultimately successful bid to become the third-ranking House Republican; since he served as conference chairman in the minority party (without a Speaker position), it was the No. 3 spot.

Pence recently announced that he would not pursue the job for a second term and endorsed Hensarling to be his successor.