Why McCarthy and Scalise won

Greg Nash

Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Steve Scalise (La.) were the big winners in Thursday’s GOP leadership elections.

Here’s a rundown of why McCarthy won the majority leader race and why Scalise triumphed in the three-way contest to replace McCarthy as whip.

 

McCarthy

1. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The Speaker was officially neutral in McCarthy’s race against Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho). But make no mistake: Boehner wanted McCarthy to win. Labrador was among the dozen Republicans who didn’t vote for Boehner as Speaker at the beginning of the Congress. And had he won, the Idaho Republican would have been a thorn in Boehner’s side at the leadership table.

2. Labrador got in too late. In leadership contests, delays can be deadly because they give opponents a head start to pile up supporters. Labrador announced he was running three days after outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his primary. That was last Friday, when the House wasn’t in session.

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3. McCarthy’s staff. Tim Berry, McCarthy’s chief of staff and a former top aide to Tom DeLay, knows how leadership contests work. That experience is invaluable, and can make the difference between winning and losing. Another factor that helped the whip: he has the contact information of every Republican in the House.

4. Likability. In politics, likability is important. But it’s especially important in leadership battles. McCarthy has been frustrated with Tea Party lawmakers on high-profile votes, but he didn’t take their defections personally. The bottom line: Republicans like the easy-going McCarthy, who plays pickup basketball games with his colleagues.

5. Immigration reform. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who launched a bid against McCarthy, wasn’t a favorite of the right wing. Labrador certainly had some backing from Tea Party members, but not all of them. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) accused Labrador of being for “amnesty,” a reference to the two-term lawmaker’s involvement in a bipartisan group that tried to craft an immigration reform plan. The only member who had a shot to beat McCarthy was Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who hasn’t ruled out a Speaker bid after the midterms.

 

Scalise

1. The red-state advantage. Conservatives in the House have long complained they don't have a top leader who hails from a red state. That dynamic helped Scalise, who will be the only Southern Republican in leadership. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) vowed to pick deputy whip from a red state if he won, but that didn't sway members. 

2. Change. GOP members wanted some type of change in the leadership. Had Roskam had won, the leadership team would basically be the same. That would have increased the chances that Boehner will be challenged after the elections — if the Speaker seeks the gavel again. 

3. Backing from the Tea Party and the establishment. Some conservatives backed Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) for whip, claiming Scalise is too close to Boehner and his lieutenants. But Scalise drew support from both Boehner allies and the Tea Party. That combination was too difficult for Roskam and Stutzman to overcome. 

—Russell Berman contributed