Republicans vie to join leadership

Ambitious, up-and-coming Republican lawmakers are making a play this week for two open leadership spots — positions that could serve as stepping stones for higher office or key committee chairmanships.

Candidates vying to become the leaders of the conservative Republican Study Committee and the GOP Policy Committee have been spending the days surrounding the midterm elections working the phones and trying to lock up support among fellow members.

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On Wednesday, these candidates will get a chance to make their pitch in person as lawmakers return to Washington after last week’s historic GOP victory at the polls.

But Republicans’ triumph in the midterms means there won’t be any larger shake-up among the top rungs of the GOP leadership structure. Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerMcConnell: Changes coming to ObamaCare next year Webster wins primary in new district Rank-and-file Republicans fear lame-duck vote on pricey funding bill MORE (Ohio), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) are all expected to cruise to reelection when the expanded Republican Conference huddles on Thursday.

Here’s the state of play in the two contested races:

Republican Study Committee chairman

After some unfortunate circumstances, it’s now a two-way race between Reps. Mick Mulvaney (S.C.) and Bill Flores (Texas) for the RSC gavel. 

Reps. Andy Harris (Md.) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) both dropped out of the contest after their spouses recently passed away. And while Rep. Louie Gohmert, another Texan, is running, he’s not seen as a serious contender.

The RSC chairman is not part of Boehner’s leadership team, but the role carries plenty of influence. Most House Republicans belong to the committee, which aims to make legislation more conservative, both fiscally and socially.

Mulvaney has backing from former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (Wis.) and past chairmen Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Jim Jordan (Ohio). The South Carolina congressman said he wants to see members of the RSC “setting the Republican agenda” by spending more time debating legislation on the House floor and offering amendments. 

Mulvaney has also focused much of his campaign on pushing back against outside conservative groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, which have created headaches for lawmakers with their voter scorecards.

“The conservatives in Congress should be the ones who help define what it means to be conservative,” Mulvaney told The Hill in a phone interview. “The guys and the gals with the voting cards who have to put their name on the line get to decide what it means to be conservative — not always outside, unelected groups.”

Mulvaney is exuding confidence and doesn’t mention the names of his opponents in his pitches to fellow conservatives. 

But that’s not the case with Flores, who said the biggest difference between him and Mulvaney is “temperament and style” when it comes to putting “conservative fingerprints” on legislation brought to the floor.

“One way is to be combative with our leadership,” Flores said in a phone interview. “And the other thing to do is be collaborative with our leadership. Go to our leadership and say, ‘Hey, if you work with us and give us these things that we need, then we can help you bring along 160, 170, 180 votes.’

“And I would hope to sit down with the leadership and do that,” the Texas congressman added. 

While Flores is considered an underdog, one GOP source not affiliated with either camp said he has a “demographic path” to victory if he can cobble together support from the large Lone Star state delegation, other western state Republicans, defense hawks and centrists who recall that Mulvaney didn’t vote for Boehner for Speaker last time.

In a strange twist, Mulvaney has pledged to vote for Boehner and the rest of his leadership team this year, while Flores is playing coy about which candidates he’ll support in Thursday’s leadership elections.

“I’m going to vote for the person who best reflects the values of Texas District 17,” said Flores, though he said he would not oppose the conference’s pick for Speaker when the full House holds a public floor vote in the new Congress. “I will not be part of any drama exercise to be disruptive on the floor in January.”

Defense is a central tenet of the RSC, and Flores has been circulating a scorecard of recent national security votes that he said shows he has the strongest defense record of the three contenders.

“Bottom line is that it is still up in the air right now,” the GOP source said.

During a meeting next Tuesday, the candidates will make their case to their roughly 155 colleagues. Committee members will vote during that same meeting, which will be held in the Cannon House Office Building.

Republican Policy Committee chairman

In the contest for the No. 5 job in leadership, Rep. Luke Messer (Ind.) is the favorite after getting an early start this past summer. However, a GOP source familiar with the contest said Rep. Tom Reed (N.Y.) is “getting some traction.” 

Rep. Rob Woodall (Ga.) is also running. He took over as chairman of the Republican Study Committee this past year after Scalise was elected as majority whip; Woodall agreed not to run for the RSC post this fall as a condition of taking the job.

Messer hopes to transition the 40-member committee from a research operation to a “working group” that produces legislation that can be presented to leadership, an aide said Tuesday. The freshman lawmaker has secured commitments from about 125 colleagues, the aide said, putting Messer right on the cusp of winning support from more than half of the GOP conference.

“My boss has put in a lot of hard work,” the source said. “He’s continuing to meet with members and making phone calls. We’re feeling confident.”

Reed and Woodall’s camps see things differently. The field is “wide open” with support split evenly among the trio of candidates, said a Reed aide, who added that the New York congressman has about a dozen colleagues who have been whipping votes on his behalf.

In an email, Woodall praised his two opponents and said he didn’t expect the race to be decided on the first ballot. “I am going to continue working every moment between now and then to build support for a positive outcome,” he said.

While the policy committee chairmanship isn’t as visible as some of the other leadership roles, it does come with a seat in Boehner’s inner circle. 

The outgoing chairman, Rep. James Lankford, has done well for himself: He was just elected the next senator from Oklahoma.

The three candidates vying for policy chairman will make their pitch to the entire conference in the Capitol Wednesday night, followed by a secret-ballot vote Thursday afternoon in the Cannon building. Republicans will also vote on whether to give Boehner, McCarthy, Scalise and other leaders another two years in office in that same Thursday gathering.