Many contenders for possible House Republican leadership contests

Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) legal woes have cast a cloud over House Republicans at a time when the conference was already struggling to define itself in the face of conservative protests about federal spending.

As the outspoken majority leader waits for a Texas judge to decide his political fate, GOP House members are left to mull their options heading into a crucial election year. Members can either wait on DeLay to clear his name or spark a leadership race to replace him temporarily.

The latter course presents rank-and-file members with an opportunity to overhaul the current leadership, but House Republicans may be reluctant to buck a highly effective team that has kept them in power for the past five election cycles.

With 10 committee chairmen in their final term and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) expected to retire in 2008, Republican House members are at a critical juncture in their 11-year reign. At this point, DeLay himself remains the major question mark.

Throughout the past week, after news of the first indictment, most members, aides and lobbyists were reluctant to come out against the controversial Texan. “If anyone can come back, it’s DeLay,” a number of lobbyists and aides have said during the last week.

Given the sensitivity of a hypothetical leadership race, all of the members, staff and lobbyists interviewed for this story would only comment on the condition that their names not be used.

If members vote for a temporary majority leader at the beginning of 2006, as was widely expected coming out of the chaos of last week, interim Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) are the most likely candidates to face off for the No. 2 spot.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) is also mentioned as a possible successor, but he is expected to remain in his post through the current election cycle to fulfill his obligation to the conference. Depending on the outcome of those elections, he is expected to mount a formidable campaign for the Speaker’s gavel in 2008.

Boehner would have a distinct advantage if members are looking to choose someone outside the existing leadership structure, outside observers said, but Blunt’s whip organization gives him a natural network, and he could benefit from regular contact with the entire conference.

Blunt, though, must effectively balance two jobs — as leader and whip — without stirring resentment from rank-and-file members.

Both men have extended networks within the business community on K Street, but phone calls and campaign cash do not ensure votes from the elected members.

Of the two networks, Boehner’s is more clearly defined at this stage. Bruce Gates with Washington Council Ernst & Young, Henry Gandy of the Duberstein Group and Bob Schellhas with Citigroup are his closest supporters within Washington’s business community, while Barry Jackson in the White House gives him an important link to the administration. Terry Holt, a former national spokesman for Bush-Cheney 2004 who is now with Quinn-Gillespie, is a vocal Boehner advocate.

Gregg Hartley, Blunt’s former chief of staff who is chief operating officer for Cassidy & Associates, and Jack Oliver, a prominent Republican fundraiser, are the interim majority leader’s most prominent allies, and he has engendered goodwill and favors from the business community in his capacity as whip.

The success of either would be largely contingent on the overall mood of the conference.

“Going into an election year, Republicans will probably want some continuity,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont-McKenna College in California and a former research director for the Republican National Committee.

A major change in leadership could hurt Republican fundraising during the current election cycle while simultaneously helping congressional Democrats, Pitney said in an e-mail.

“The advantage of a wholesale change is the chance to put a fresh face on the party,” Pitney said. “The downside is that the political community might read it as a sign of worry.”

Whatever happens in the next 13 months, 2006 should be a major barometer for Republican leadership.

“If they take a drubbing in 2006 … look for major changes as they organize for the next Congress,” Pitney added.

That wholesale change could sweep in a roster of brand-new faces.

As the biggest internal faction within the conference, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) presents a natural platform to elevate one of its own, but the group, with about 100 members, does not always vote as a large bloc and more than one RSC member could launch a leadership bid.

In addition, the current chairman, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), has garnered headlines for his campaign to cut federal spending, but in doing so irritated several ranking Republicans by drowning out the conference message on spending restraint. The White House and leadership have since restructured their message to highlight spending cuts on the fall agenda, though, so his calls have not gone unheeded.

Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) is one Republican who could straddle the line between old and new in a potential campaign to succeed Blunt as majority whip. A member of the RSC, Cantor has become a formidable fundraiser in only his third term and has regular contact with a broad swath of members in his capacity as the chief deputy whip. Under the temporary leadership structure, Cantor will take on an increased role within that whip operation, a change that could increase his exposure but also has the potential to stir resentment from members with more seniority.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) is often mentioned as a dark-horse candidate for any one of a number of leadership roles. He still has his team in place from an almost-campaign for the conference chairmanship before Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) decided to stay on for one more term, but he remains an unknown commodity.

Those members with a defined support structure should have a major advantage in a leadership race, but anyone could eventually emerge if rank-and-file Republicans revolt against their current vanguard.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), for example, prompted snickers from aides throughout the conference after announcing his candidacy for majority whip in a pre-recorded telephone message last Wednesday, but a long-shot candidate like Wamp could set the entire process in motion. The resulting ripple effect could throw the process into question as ambitious members create alliances as they vie for promotions within the House hierarchy.

The internal machinations of a leadership race remain speculation at this point because Wamp is the only member willing to challenge the current structure, and the potential candidates to succeed the majority leader are reluctant to anger DeLay should “the Hammer” eventually return.

The contenders for leadership

Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
The interim majority leader must effectively balance two jobs without stoking resentment from rank-and-file members in order to make his post more temporary.

Eric Cantor (R-Va.)
Blunt's deputy has quietly become a fundraising powerhouse in only his third term.

John Boehner (R-Ohio)
A popular former member of leadership, Boehner could campaign as an outsider if members have tired of their current leaders.

Mike Pence (R-Ind.)
The conservative Republican Study Committee chairman has increased his national visibility with recent calls for spending restraint, but possible overexposure coupled with meager fundraising could be major obstacles.

Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.)
Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee would give anyone a run for his money but might be hamstrung until after the 2006 midterm election.

Mike Rogers (R-Mich.)
An active member of Blunt's whip team, Rogers is attractive to K Street and could be a dark horse candidate for any of the top spots in leadership.

Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.)
The only candidate to announce officially, Wamp is considered a party outsider by many members of the conference.