Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus
Early jockeying has begun in the race for chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee — the largest caucus on Capitol Hill, and one that has seen its influence grow with President Trump in the White House.
At least five House Republicans told The Hill they are weighing bids to replace the group’s chairman, Rep. Mark Walker (N.C.). Known informally as the RSC, the caucus imposes a two-year term limit on its chairman, giving more members a chance to lead.
So far, the possible contenders are: four-term Rep. Vicky Hartzler (Mo.); three-term Rep. Roger Williams (Texas); two-term Rep. Barry Loudermilk (Ga.); and freshmen Reps. Jim Banks (Ind.) and Mike Johnson (La.).
More could join the fray in the coming weeks, given that the RSC is roughly 160 members strong and there is no heir apparent to Walker. An internal vote would take place after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
“Right at this moment, it’s a wide-open race,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (Ala.), an RSC member.
While none of the five members has officially launched a campaign, they all confirmed in interviews or emails this week that they are starting to have conversations with colleagues about the position.
If either Banks or Johnson wins, they’d follow in the footsteps of Walker, a Southern Baptist preacher-turned-politician who won the RSC job as a freshman by upsetting veteran Rep. Andy Harris (Md.). Harris had the backing of the exclusive group of past chairmen known as the RSC Founders.
Hartzler could make history as only the second woman to serve as RSC chair; former Rep. Sue Myrick (N.C.) held the post in the early 2000s.
Asked if she’s interested in running, Hartzler, a conservative Christian, replied: “I’m praying on it.”
Her Missouri GOP colleague, Rep. Ann Wagner, is among those encouraging Hartzler, who chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, to jump in the race.
“She’s a very active member of the RSC,” Wagner told The Hill. “She’s a solid conservative. And I would certainly love to see a woman like Vicky head up the RSC.”
“That would be an excellent dynamic and I think Vicky would be well-suited for that position,” Wagner added.
While Walker may not be a household name, the RSC chairmanship has served as a political launching pad. Past chairmen include Vice President Pence; Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), who some have mentioned as a possible Speaker; Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), who is wrapping up his sixth year as chairman of the powerful Financial Services Committee; former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who resigned after scrutiny of his private charter flights; and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who went on to found the influential House Freedom Caucus (HFC) but is now facing allegations he failed to protect athletes from a sexually abusive doctor while coaching at Ohio State University decades ago.
Former RSC Chairman Bill Flores (Texas), who preceded Walker, said the post has become even more influential since Trump became president. Walker not only takes part in a weekly meeting with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), known as the “cross-sectional,” he also has frequently spoken with Trump and top White House officials about key bills, from ObamaCare repeal and tax cuts to recent matters involving immigrant children.
The top RSC post is “probably more relevant today than it was earlier now that you’ve got unified government,” Flores told The Hill.
“You’ve got an opportunity to actually put fingerprints on things that become law,” he said. “That was not an option that I had” under former President Obama.
Walker isn’t expected to back anyone in the race, but the RSC Founders have traditionally recommended a candidate before the internal vote.
The 2016 race for chairman was seen as a proxy fight between the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus and GOP establishment forces at a time two Freedom Caucus co-founders — Mark Meadows (N.C.) and Mick Mulvaney (S.C.) — were dropping out of the RSC. Both Harris and Walker were conservatives, but Harris was a member of the Freedom Caucus that’s credited with pushing out Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2015.
Loudermilk, who quietly dropped out of the Freedom Caucus last year, says he can be a bridge between the Freedom Caucus and other factions within the GOP conference.
“The direction the RSC has taken during this previous chairman’s tenure has been very positive,” Loudermilk told The Hill this week after appearing at a news conference with Ryan and his entire leadership team. “We have taken on more of a conservative approach on a lot of issues, but yet taken it from a reasonable standpoint and understanding what is achievable and what isn’t.”
“I want to see us continue in that area to uphold our strong conservative values but understand that a field goal or first down is often better than a Hail Mary pass,” he added.
Banks, one of the two freshmen considering a run for the RSC chairmanship, also has ties to the Freedom Caucus. He was backed by Jordan in his 2016 primary, though he did not end up joining the group. On Thursday, Banks, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who still serves in the Navy Reserves, was named chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee that has oversight over electronic health records.
“The Republican Study Committee continues to play an important role in moving and advancing conservative principles on Capitol Hill,” said Banks, 38, a member of the RSC Steering Committee. “Chairman Walker has done a great job during this term to make RSC relevant; my interest is continuing that in the next term.”
Williams, who lost a bid to lead the House GOP’s campaign arm in the 2018 cycle, said he’s been approached by a few people to run for the RSC seat. But he’s not jumping head first into the race.
“We’ve got a great bench; we’re not going to void of leadership in the RSC,” said Williams, who volunteers as House Republicans’ baseball team manager for the annual charity game. The RSC is “a conservative group that talks about the things I talk about: lower tax, less government, cut spending, and defend our borders. And anytime I can promote that agenda, I’m gonna promote it.”
Johnson has had a rapid political rise. He won a special election to the Louisiana House of Representatives in February 2015; the next year he was elected to replace Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a Freedom Caucus member who made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate.
“I am truly humbled to have been approached by a number of my colleagues encouraging me to run for the chairmanship,” Johnson said in a statement to The Hill. “The Republican Study Committee has been an integral part of advancing the conservative agenda in Congress, and I look forward to supporting the caucus and its goals regardless of my position.”