Talkers flex muscle within GOP

Conservative talk show hosts and Tea Party groups are vowing to do something they’ve never done before: Select the next Speaker of the House.

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That’s bad news for Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and other establishment Republicans who are eyeing the top perch in the lower chamber.

Emboldened by Rep. Eric Cantor’s (Va.) loss in his GOP primary, Tea Party leaders are looking to get one of their own either to replace Boehner or to defeat him after the 2014 elections.

Leadership races have long been popularity contests instead of ideological purity tests. That is changing rapidly.

FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group, is backing Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) over Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for the majority leader post.

“Americans deserve a choice in leadership, and Republicans should have learned by now that ‘the next guy in line’ isn’t entitled to the next rung on the ladder,” FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in a statement Friday.

While some are picking sides in the McCarthy-Labrador race, the big prize in the Tea Party-versus-establishment conflict is the race for Speaker.

Conservative activist Brent Bozell says the House GOP needs a clean slate of leaders at the start of the next Congress.

“You can’t replace the No. 3 with a great conservative and have the No. 1 and No. 2 be liberals,” said Bozell, referring to Boehner and McCarthy. “Things aren’t going to change until there are real conservatives in leadership.”

Should McCarthy defeat the underdog Labrador, conservative critics of Boehner and his lieutenants will probably denounce Republicans for engineering a status quo election. That could help Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a Tea Party favorite who opted not to challenge McCarthy. Hensarling has not ruled out a bid to become Speaker after November.

Conservative talk show host Mark Levin, who routinely lambastes the Boehner-Cantor-McCarthy leadership team for wanting to pass an “amnesty” immigration bill, tweeted last week that the “House GOP learned nothing” from the majority leader’s loss to Dave Brat.

Laura Ingraham, who campaigned for Brat, said it’s easier to sway constituent votes in a primary than votes in a leadership contest.

Still, the Fox News and radio host told The Hill that there is a lot of disappointment with the Speaker: “There’s an enormous amount of frustration with John Boehner. There’s a lot of frustration going back to 2006 when [Republicans lost the House] and after losing the House, then John Boehner is returned to a position of power.”

She added, “I guess [Boehner has] made the decision that we don’t need to do anything different, that Eric Cantor’s defeat doesn’t mean anything. The grass roots saying that they are unhappy with Republican leadership doesn’t mean anything.

“All these polls that say that Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction, that doesn’t mean anything. We’re just going to keep down our heads and go on our merry way. I think that’s the wrong approach, but history will judge whether John Boehner made the right decisions for the United States, let alone for his party.”

Rush Limbaugh last week said on his radio show, “This is all bigger than Cantor, and it’s bigger than one issue, immigration reform. This disconnect is major and it is growing.”

Boehner’s office didn’t comment for this article.

Asked how involved outside groups would be in the leadership elections, Bozell responded, “I think they will [be involved] by virtue of the fact that the narrative is growing rapidly about conservatives having lost patience with the do-nothing establishment. They beat Eric Cantor. This was a national story. The biggest upset in their lifetime. This means something.”

The Tea Party-GOP establishment tug-of-war has generally been confined to Republican primaries and legislation.

Despite the Tea Party’s intensifying interest in endorsing leadership candidates, the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an ally of Republican leaders, won’t be getting involved.

A well-placed source explained that unlike policy fights, outside involvement in an internal party leadership election “can backfire on you because members view this very much as a member-to-member thing.”

It may not be a blatant lobbying campaign, but Bozell and Ingraham mentioned going after Boehner’s “heavy-handedness.” Boehner has kicked rebellious Republicans off prized committees for not getting in line on important votes. One of them, Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), has backed Labrador over McCarthy.

Leadership elections, with the exception of Speaker, are done via secret ballot.

Bozell believes that could work in Labrador’s favor: “There is enough pent-up frustration with this leadership [team].”

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said leadership contests come down to a variety of factors: “Loyalty is measured by a different yardstick in a leadership election. It’s measured by: Did you help out when I was running for office? Did you come and do the fundraisers? Did you do what I needed to stay in power?”

If McCarthy moves up to the No. 2 spot, it doesn’t mean he would remain in that position after the November elections, The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt last week.

Fred Barnes, his colleague at the conservative magazine, wrote, “A contest to succeed Boehner may still happen. Without 10 to 12 Republican pickups in November’s midterm elections, Boehner may not have the votes to win. Nine Republicans declined to vote for him in 2013, and more may in 2015. Combined with Democrats, who can be counted on to vote in unison against Boehner, he may be facing defeat. If so, he may step down before a vote. That would prompt Hensarling to step forward.”

Tea Party groups aren’t saying whether they would endorse Hensarling over Boehner or whether they would “key vote” the Speaker vote in January of 2015. Much can change between now and then, Republicans point out.

Boehner has pushed back against speculation that this is his final Congress, saying he will seek a third term as Speaker.

Should Hensarling run, he would have some built-in advantages including the backing of Tea Party activists and the loyalty of the Texas GOP delegation. The influential editorial board at The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, indicated that it would have backed Hensarling if he had run to be majority leader.

Yet there are questions about how Hensarling, who rarely appears on Sunday talk shows, would perform on the national stage.

Ingraham notes she won’t be “crusading” on leadership elections, while adding, “I think the Tea Party needs to find a way to get into leadership ... and that’s not my responsibility. That’s theirs.” That mission is possible, she said, pointing to Brat’s win over Cantor.

In the wake of Brat’s victory, Limbaugh mocked political analysts who claimed the Tea Party was dead.

“There’s no way they’ll ever end the Tea Party,” Limbaugh said. “It’s never gonna end.”