Pennsylvania GOP struggles to wield clout in leadership race

With 13 Republican members, the Pennsylvania House delegation is now the fourth largest in the GOP conference, and it is trying to exert its clout by voting as a bloc in Thursday’s leadership elections.

But with members spread across the ideological spectrum, unifying around a single candidate is proving a tough task.

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The delegation met separately on Thursday afternoon with two of the three candidates for majority whip and with Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), the second-term conservative who is mounting a long-shot bid against the current whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), to replaced the defeated Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

The meeting was organizated by the delegation’s dean, Rep. Joe Pitts (R), who told reporters afterward that support for McCarthy was “overwhelming.”

But the Pennsylvania Republicans had yet to decide on the more competitive whip spot after hearing from Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). They spoke later on the House floor with the third candidate, Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), who could not get back to Washington in time for the earlier meeting.

Pitts said the delegation planned to then vote by secret ballot to decide which of the three candidates to back, if any. The Pennsylvania delegation includes both centrist members of the conference such as Reps. Charlie Dent and Jim Gerlach, as well as conservatives Reps. Lou Barletta and Keith Rothfus.

“It’s going to be a more difficult vote,” Pitts said.

The larger Texas delegation faced a similar challenge last week as it tried to decide between two of its members, Reps. Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, who were eyeing a run for majority leader. The deliberations allowed McCarthy to jump out far ahead, and Sessions abandoned his candidacy soon after it started, while Hensarling declined to run at all.

The full GOP conference will vote by secret ballot on Thursday afternoon, and the candidates will make a more formal pitch to their colleagues on Wednesday.

Scalise, who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee, walked into the meeting with the Pennsylvanians carrying a stack of glossy hand cards that read “Steve Scalise for majority whip … Together we will succeed.”

“I think I’ve shown as chairman of RSC that we can bridge divides in our conference,” he told reporters after his 25-minute meeting, summarizing his pitch. “We can actually strengthen our team and we can get good policy passed if we’re strategic about how we approach it.”

Scalise’s candidacy is in large measure predicated on a desire by conservatives to have a member from a red state at the leadership table, which for years has been dominated by lawmakers hailing from states President Obama won in the last two elections.

Roskam cited his success in winning his House seat in suburban Chicago during Democratic wave years, and Pitts suggested the geography was less of a concern for him.

“I’m sure there’ll be a place for everybody at one of the positions,” he said. He noted the possibility that a red-state Republican could fill Roskam’s chief deputy whip slot. Roskam has pledged to appoint someone from a red state to that post if he wins the promotion.

On his way in, Scalise said he had 50 members whipping support for his candidacy and voiced confidence in victory. Roskam was in similarly good spirits, saying he had “good momentum” and had a strategy for both the first and second ballots.

If none of the three candidates wins the 117 votes needed for a majority (if all Republicans vote) on the first ballot, the candidate receiving the least amount of votes would drop off in the second ballot.

The private session resembled a board meeting, with the 13 members of the delegation seated around a large conference table.

Scalise entered the room as Roskam was chatting with reporters outside. “I warmed them up for you,” Roskam joked as the two shook hands.

“I hope you left some [votes] on the table for me,” Scalise replied before heading in.