Run for Speaker makes Webster a rock star

Greg Nash

It was one of the strangest bids for Speaker of the House in recent memory.

Two hours before lawmakers headed to the floor to vote for their next leader, Rep. Daniel Webster decided he would jump into an already crowded three-way race. 

The Florida Republican had no campaign or whip operation in place. He hadn’t lobbied a single GOP colleague. Webster didn’t even have time to give incumbent Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) a heads-up he was running to unseat him, saying he missed a phone call from Boehner a half hour before the dramatic roll call.

But in the days leading up to the vote, Webster’s phone kept ringing, with Tea Party conservatives like Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) on the other line nudging the former Florida state House Speaker and Senate majority leader to risk his career and take on one of the most powerful men in Washington.

“I just said I’ll do it. I’ll allow my name to be offered up, because I was so disturbed about where we were headed, and I thought maybe we could shake things up,” Webster recounted in an interview in his Longworth building office on Capitol Hill.

Boehner easily won a third term as Speaker, but Webster captured all the headlines. The soft-spoken Republican backbencher stunned House observers, winning support from 12 of the record 25 defectors who voted against the sitting Speaker.

And Webster outpaced two other GOP colleagues who were actively campaigning for the Speaker’s gavel: Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who ended up with just three votes, and Rep. Ted Yoho, a fellow Floridian who got two.

While he came up short, Webster’s strong showing at last week’s vote has won him more fans in the GOP conference. He was already well-liked by colleagues, but conservatives now see this former electrical engineer and grandfather of nine as something of a rock star.

“Daniel Webster is one of the most honorable people I’ve met in Congress,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a Tea Party favorite who voted for Boehner and unsuccessfully ran for majority leader last year. “He’s shown leadership in the state legislature; he is someone who should be taken seriously.”

Labrador and other Webster fans say they’re drawn to the former state leader’s bottom-up management style. In Tallahassee, Webster suffered for 16 years in the minority before he became the first Republican House Speaker in more than 120 years.

Tired of massive bills getting rammed through at the 11th hour, he vowed to make legislating a more “member-driven process” where lawmakers have more opportunities to pass bills in committee and offer amendments on the floor. There were few surprises: Every legislative day ended at 6 p.m.

“He’s a process guy and he believes in order,” said Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel, the former Florida House minority leader who served for years with Webster in Tallahassee. “He really ran a very orderly ship.” 

Hoping to bring that same process to Congress, Webster in the lame-duck session began circulating an essay he wrote called “Widgets, Principles and Republicans.” It spelled out examples of what Republicans, now fully in charge of Congress, could do to show Americans they could lead.

The essay — and Webster’s past leadership experience — was what caught the attention of folks like Jones, who had spent months frantically searching for a conservative challenger to take on Boehner in the first vote of the new Congress.

“He brings the experience of having been a Speaker of a statehouse of a very big state,” Jones told The Hill.  “When you achieve that in one of the top five states in America, that’s saying a lot about what people think of your ability.”

Asked if he might mount another bid for leadership in the future, Webster again turned to his favorite buzzword: “process.”

“One goal is to make the process better. If someone else will do that, I’m happy to guide them,” said Webster, 65, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging on the wall behind him. “If no one else will do that, I’m willing to step up and do it.”

He’ll have to win reelection for his central Florida House seat first. After Webster’s last-minute challenge, Boehner booted him and one of his supporters, Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.), off the powerful Rules Committee — no surprise since the Speaker hand-picks its members.  And Webster should expect campaign cash from Boehner and his allies to quickly dry up; Boehner’s PAC gave him $5,000 last cycle.

But Webster’s backers say he has nothing to worry about.

“There have been a lot of people the establishment has tried to destroy,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), who voted for Webster. “They’ve tried to take me out, they’ve tried to take Walter Jones out, David Schweikert [R-Ariz.] out, take Justin Amash [R-Mich.] out and we all returned.”

A day after he was removed from the Rules panel, Webster trudged up to the Speaker’s office to clear the air with Boehner. Webster described the 15-minute meeting as “cordial,” but told Boehner there wasn’t anything he could do to change the way he chose to represent his district. While Webster said he’d like to be reinstated on Rules, Boehner made no promises.

“It’s still in limbo,” Webster said.

Daniel Alan Webster was named for his great-grandfather, who in turn was named for the great 19th century Massachusetts senator and secretary of State. But in Florida politics, there’s only one Daniel Webster. A 30-mile toll road is named for the local politician near Disney World, as is a state transportation center and the largest committee room in the state House. 

Now that he has bounded onto the national stage, his phone won’t stop ringing. He even hasn’t had time to call back Jeb Bush, who may be occupying the White House in a couple years. Bush won the Florida’s governor’s mansion back when Webster was Speaker, and the two worked closely together. 

“He called me, told me he’s getting in, needs my help,” Webster said of Bush’s voice message. “I haven’t had time to call him back.”