A rising conservative resists leadership role
The imminent resignation of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has put Rep. Trey Gowdy in the kind of position any lawmaker would envy. Except, apparently, Trey Gowdy.
The South Carolina conservative has been pressed to seek a leadership spot by a number of Republicans who view him as both a unifying force in a divided conference and their most able spokesman for pitching conservative principles on a national stage.
Gowdy, so far, says he’s not interested, insisting he wants to focus on the GOP’s investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attacks, which he’s leading.
Amid the recruitment effort, Gowdy made a rare appearance at the Republicans’ conference meeting Tuesday — the first time he’d attended in a year and a half, he said — to extinguish any notion that he wants to enter the leadership ranks.
“What I said is, ‘I’m not your person. I don’t have the qualities that are necessary to be an effective leader. I’m very content where I am,'” Gowdy told The Hill Thursday, recalling his message to the group.
His vocal resistance to entering leadership has disappointed conservatives who feel unrepresented on the current ballot for both Speaker and majority leader. They’re holding out hope he’ll reconsider.
It also likely fueled the expected decision by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Gowdy’s most ardent promoter, to enter the Speaker’s race as a more conservative alternative to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the majority leader who’s under fire for suggesting that Gowdy’s Benghazi panel was formed, at least in part, to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.
Chaffetz has not yet officially launched a bid. But unnamed sources told Politico that an announcement is imminent, and several members of the Freedom Caucus — who will meet with Speaker candidates on Tuesday — say they’ve invited Chaffetz to that gathering in anticipation that he’ll run.
McCarthy is the heavy favorite in that race — his only current opponent is Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) — but many conservatives are wary that a McCarthy Speakership would prove little different from Boehner’s reign. And the majority leader’s Benghazi gaffe prompted a number of conservatives to race to Gowdy’s defense with calls for an apology.
“I think he should apologize. I think he should withdraw it. I think it’s an absolute inaccurate statement as to what we’re doing and have done and the work on Benghazi,” Chaffetz told CNN Thursday.
McCarthy also raised some conservative eyebrows when he voted last week for a short-term spending bill that included funding for Planned Parenthood — a measure that more than 60 percent of Republicans opposed.
Gowdy, though he voted against the bill, said he’s not holding McCarthy’s vote against him.
“It’s very difficult for leaders to put something on the floor, and then not vote for it,” he said.
A Chaffetz bid for Speaker would dim any chance that Gowdy would enter the race to replace Boehner. But conservatives have also touted Gowdy as a viable alternative for majority leader, especially if the current candidates –– Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.) –– fail to inspire a clear consensus and the party turns to him to bridge the gulf.
“If there is a race for majority leader, and it becomes something that we can’t settle easily, if it becomes divisive, Trey is [one] who I think a lot of folks could rally behind as sort of a fallback position,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) told The Washington Post this week.
Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), another Gowdy backer, said she has a similar understanding, telling CNN that, “He said that he would join if he was asked to serve.”
The headlines swirling around Gowdy have both heightened his reputation as a national player and highlighted the tensions within a Republican conference scrambling to fill the power void soon to follow the departure of Boehner, who was pushed out by conservatives long-infuriated by his record of compromise with President Obama and the Democrats on major legislation.
Elected to Congress just five years ago, Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, rose to national prominence when Boehner tapped him last year to head the special committee investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where three Americans — including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens — were killed.
Democrats have assailed the investigation as a politically motivated witch-hunt designed from the outset to hurt the candidacy of Clinton, who was secretary of State during the Benghazi tragedy. Those accusations have only been inflamed by McCarthy’s recent comments linking the Benghazi probe to Clinton’s falling poll numbers.
But conservatives on and off Capitol Hill have hailed Gowdy’s relentless approach to the probe, propelling his standing as an articulate and unapologetic defender of both conservatism and the rule of law.
It was in that vein that the conservative trumpets began to sound for Gowdy to enter the leadership contest in the wake of Boehner’s resignation announcement.
“If you want the best person to make the Republican case, if you want the best person to talk about why conservatism is the right answer for America, Trey Gowdy is out best foot forward,” Chaffetz told Fox News earlier in the week.
Though he may not be vying for a leadership spot this Congress, Gowdy also says he intends to be around for a while.
On Thursday, he emphasized that he has no plans to leave Congress at the end of this term — a rumor launched Wednesday when Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) told C-Span that Gowdy had informed the conference he was heading home in 2017.
“The moral of that story is, in a group of 240, 239 can hear one thing — the right thing — and it only takes one to interpret it differently,” Gowdy said.
“I think what I said is, ‘My heart’s with the Benghazi Committee, but you also know my heart’s really in South Carolina.’ Now, if you can interpret that as a retirement speech, you’re very creative,” he added.
“I promise, Mrs. Gowdy would know that before Dr. Fleming would know it, and Mrs. Gowdy didn’t know it.”