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‘It’s a King Kong vs. Godzilla kind of race’

‘It’s a King Kong vs. Godzilla kind of race’
© Greg Nash

Ask outgoing House GOP campaign chief Greg Walden about his next move, and he’ll insist he’s not looking past the November elections.

But with no obvious path to move up the leadership ladder, the Oregon Republican made clear to The Hill that he’s seriously considering a bid this fall to succeed Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

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Such a move would pit Walden against a good friend and well-connected colleague, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who carries more seniority on the panel and has already signaled he’s running for the gavel.

“It’s a King Kong vs. Godzilla kind of race,” said one senior member of the House GOP Steering Committee, which will pick the next chairman. “Both are very credible candidates for the job. Both smart. Both leaders. Both have great relationships. And both are strong supporters of the team.”

Former Energy Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) also has said he may seek the gavel again this year, and Energy and Commerce Vice Chairwoman Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTime to bring federal employees home for every holiday Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE (R-Tenn.) is frequently thrown in the mix, though she’s more junior than the others.

“I’m focused on 2016. I’ve heard of jobs I’m taking, that I’m retiring, that I’m running for chairman of this and of that. Honest to God, I am focused on this [election],” Walden, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an exclusive interview at GOP headquarters on Capitol Hill.

But he went on to volunteer: “I’m second in seniority on Energy and Commerce. Would I like to be chairman someday, this day, tomorrow? Yeah. It’s a great committee. I love that committee. I’m chairman of the subcommittee on communications and technology.”

“That would be a very interesting and important and fulfilling job to take on. I think I’d be good at it. I think I’ve had good success at our subcommittee,” he added. “But I’m not out campaigning to be chairman of Energy and Commerce at the moment.”

The remarks from the nine-term congressman are his most extensive to date about his interest in leading the Energy and Commerce panel, whose broad portfolio includes energy and the environment, technology and healthcare.

But they don’t come as a surprise to Shimkus. Several months ago, he asked to meet with Walden after he started getting questions from reporters and lawmakers about the committee job. The two colleagues met in a room in the Capitol, and Shimkus told Walden he was planning to run. Walden replied that he hadn’t made any decisions but was keeping his options open.  

“He’s a senior member of the committee, he’s worked hard, he has great credentials, he’s a great friend. You would expect someone like that to look at it,” Shimkus said of Walden in a phone interview Monday.

“I think I have good credentials and good relationships with my colleagues. It will be a decision for the Steering Committee and full conference, and I hope they will give me a fair look.”

While the race is still shaping up, GOP lawmakers and leadership sources were divided when asked whether Shimkus or Walden had the edge to replace the term-limited Upton. Shimkus, a 10-term Illinois Republican, is housemates in D.C. with Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyOn The Money: Biden, Democratic leaders push for lame-duck coronavirus deal | Business groups shudder at Sanders as Labor secretary | Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Top Democrat: Congress could pass retirement bill as soon as this year Momentum grows for bipartisan retirement bill in divided Congress MORE (R-Texas); Scalise’s vote-counting operation came in handy in Brady’s successful chairman’s race last year and probably would be deployed for Shimkus as well.

But as NRCC chairman, Walden has spent the past two election cycles raising millions of dollars for colleagues, putting him in a position to call in a few favors after the November elections. In the 2014 cycle, he helped lead House Republicans to 247 seats — their largest majority since before the Great Depression.

With the volatile Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE closing in on the GOP nomination, it’s unclear how Republicans down-ballot might be impacted. An ugly GOP defeat at the polls this fall could put Walden in a weakened position against Shimkus.

A telecommunications industry source said Walden appeared reluctant to make a formal announcement about the chairman’s race until his campaign role had wrapped up.

If he announced before then, it could give the impression that he was focused on his own ambitions rather than the party, the source said.

On paper, Walden, 59, and Shimkus, 58, match up well. Both are Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairmen and hold seats on the influential Steering panel that will vote on committee chairmen shortly after the general election. The roughly 30-member panel is made up of regional and class representatives, as well as all members of the leadership team, including Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Bottom line Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition MORE (R-Wis.), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Scalise and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.).

A big question is how much seniority will matter in the race.

Technically, Barton, the Energy and Commerce chairman emeritus and dean of the Texas delegation, is the most senior member of the committee after Upton. He last held the gavel about a decade ago and will make his case for another chance to lead. But there is no recent precedent for a former chairman to win back the gavel after a prolonged absence, and there’s a strong desire from some colleagues for new blood.

Both Barton and Shimkus ran for chairman of the panel after the GOP took back the majority in 2010, but Upton beat them both.

“Congressman Barton is certainly interested in chairing the full committee. Since he has held the position in the past, he would be the most qualified candidate,” said Barton spokesman Daniel Rhea. “No other member of the House has near Congressman Barton’s level of experience or body of work within the E&C portfolio.”

Shimkus is next in line after Barton. Since two other senior panel members — Reps. Ed WhitfieldWayne (Ed) Edward WhitfieldBottom Line Why Republicans took aim at an ethics watchdog What Azerbaijan wants from Israel? MORE (R-Ky.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) — are retiring this year, Walden follows directly behind Shimkus when it comes to longevity serving on the committee.

Blackburn would be the sixth most senior committee member.

The slight seniority Shimkus holds over Walden could make all the difference in a tight race. After Ryan, the former Ways and Means chairman, ascended to the Speaker’s office last fall, Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) tried to leapfrog the more senior Brady in the race to replace him.

But Brady prevailed, backed by both Ryan and Shimkus. This fall, Brady could return the favor and cast a vote for his fellow roommate.  

“Seniority does still mean something,” Shimkus said as he was driving home from an event in his district along Illinois’s Interstate 70. “Everything being equal, seniority should play some role in the process.”

David McCabe contributed to this report.