Conservatives to new House GOP leadership: Don't get too comfortable

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is expected to become the next House majority leader on Thursday, but he shouldn’t get too comfortable in his new digs.

House Republicans say the new leadership hierarchy that emerges next week after lawmakers vote won’t necessarily be the one the party keeps after the midterm elections. 

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“We’ll have a whole new set of circumstances in the leadership elections after the November elections,” Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) said this week. “I don’t think this settles things permanently.”

“I think there are those that are ambitious,” he added, “and once the elections are over, they’ll be looking at opportunities.”

The surprise primary defeat on Tuesday of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and his subsequent resignation as leader set in motion a swift election to replace him. 

That quick turnaround gave a leg up to McCarthy, who had been preparing for years for a leadership battle. And it caused a trio of conservatives who had been mulling a run – Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), Pete Sessions (R-Texas), and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) – to ultimately pass on the race.

McCarthy drew a late-entering challenger in second-term Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) on Friday, but the current majority whip remains the heavy favorite to win the secret ballot election.

The decision by so many top conservatives to stand down frustrated activists, who have noted that McCarthy, as judged by his voting record, is even less conservative than Cantor.

“House conservatives have made some fiery stands,” RedState’s Erick Erickson wrote on Friday. “They have undermined their leadership repeatedly doing what is right though not convenient or popular. But when it comes to suddenly standing up and being willing to lead, they pretend they are focused on the next time. Their delays routinely cost them.

“House Republicans have become their own caricature,” the conservative blogger continued in a mocking tone. “They want to sabotage, they want to obstruct, but God help them if you ask them to stand up and lead. But don’t worry. They will next time.”

No matter what happens next week, the full slate of leaders will face another vote in November or early December after the midterms. Conservative challengers who passed on this rapid race now have more than five months to prepare anew and build up their base of support within the conference.

 In his Thursday statement announcing his decision not to run, Hensarling said he had concluded that this was “not the right race at the right time” – a signal he is keeping his options open and could challenge McCarthy or Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the fall.

Even before Cantor’s loss, the conference’s right flank was already gunning for Boehner, who reiterated to his members on Wednesday that he plans to seek a third term with the gavel after the elections.

One conservative operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Labrador’s move to challenge McCarthy now could set up another, more serious race in the fall, if only by denying McCarthy the coronation he was expecting.

“Labrador stepping into the void really does lay the groundwork,” the operative said. “The predicate is there for something to happen in November.”

Whoever wins the race to replace McCarthy as whip could also be vulnerable. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), as McCarthy’s chief deputy, is not seen as a favorite of conservatives. Another top contender, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), now leads the conservative Republican Study Committee, but should he win, he would be going from an organization whose mission is to push the leadership into a position as the party’s chief enforcer and vote-counter.

While more conservative than McCarthy or Roskam, Scalise has never been closely aligned with the conference’s Tea Party faction, and he was viewed as the leadership’s choice to lead the RSC when he took over last year. He would face immediate pressure to deliver for conservatives, such as by using his new clout in leadership to make good on one of his top priorities as RSC chairman: bringing an ObamaCare replacement bill to a vote.