The first rule of leadership races, it’s often said among the few people who have experience waging power struggles at the top of the congressional food chain in the most powerful country on earth, is that he who who gets in early wins.
In taking out the sitting chief deputy whip in a single ballot victory, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) showed a head-start of even a few hours can provide a crucial edge.
When Randolph-Macon economics professor David Brat stunned the political world in toppling Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a June 10 primary election, Scalise sprung into action.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), meanwhile, waited out of deference to Cantor, who didn’t announce he was resigning until the next day and might have tried a desperate write-in bid to come back from the political grave.
“Speed kills in leadership races. [Scalise] got to 100 very quickly. And then it was just a matter of him picking up a few votes every day,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), a top vote counter for Roskam.
Even before Cantor’s shocking loss, Scalise had already been laying the groundwork to take on Roskam. A series of news stories, including at Breitbart, had talked up the would-be race. And inside the Scalise office at the Republican Study Committee which he chaired, it was obvious to everyone who worked there he had his sights on leadership and was using the conservative caucus group as a stepping stone.
Months before the race was to begin, aides said, a whiteboard appeared on the wall near chief of staff Lynnel Ruckert’s desk with lists of names. Never explained to the larger office, it was assumed to be a list of Scalise supporters for a leadership bid.
But beyond preparation, Scalise executed his whip effort far more tenaciously than Roskam, according to a range of lawmakers, aides and K Street insiders.
In the final days of the race, Capitol Hill was abuzz with stories like the GOP member who’d been called by eight people on behalf of Scalise and once by Roskam forces.
“Scalise called me four times,” one senior lawmaker said, “his operation was really impressive.”
Roskam, behind, put out the word that Scalise’s support was soft – plausible given that Roskam was assumed to have the edge in the mechanics of whipping, given his role on Kevin McCarthy’s whip team.
To offset the charge, Scalise walked into the vote on election day with a huge entourage of supporters that drew from all parts of the GOP conference. When Roskam and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, who waged a challenge to both candidates from the right, followed with a handful of supporters, the message wasn’t lost on the hordes of reporters crammed in the hallway.
The RSC Chairmanship also provided Scalise resources he would need to prevail.
An email invitation to Scalise’s victory party at the Capitol Hill Club was sent by Bart Reising, an RSC staffer apparently working for Scalise’s whip operation. Ironically, given how member dues pay RSC aides’ salaries, it was Roskam’s office that had last paid Reising’s salary, according to Legistorm.
Earlier, during the vote, fresh-faced Scalise staffers talked hurriedly while poring over “Geaux Scalise”-branded clipboards.
The clipboards fit in with Scalise’s penchant for tchotchkes, but also showed a level of organization that wasn’t apparent in Roskam’s bid.
We don’t know the vote tally, and most members suspect Scalise barely crossed the absolute majority he needed to win on the initial ballot.
Towards the end of the race, Stutzman allies were claiming 50 supporters, Roskam around 90, and Scalise close to 120. Added together, those tallies comprise 260 votes, impossible because there are only 233 Republicans in Congress right now.
But, assuming Stutzman had 30 members backing him, that would leave Roskam with about 87 votes, since Scalise needed 116 to win outright. If Stutzman was closer to his mark – and he was quite confident in remarks to his supporters in the hours leading up to the vote – Roskam might have netted beneath 70 votes.
Either way, it’s remarkable, given Roskam’s position as chief deputy whip.
Walking out of the race, looking gaunt and tired, Roskam appeared surprised.
“He did a very good job. It’s a foreshadowing that he could be a very good whip,” he said.
Asked whether he would run again for the position in November, Roskam demurred. “Today is Steve Scalise day, so let’s celebrate Steve Scalise,” he said.
His key supporter, Hudson, was more open-ended. “I think we haven’t seen the last of Peter Roskam,” he said.
Perhaps. But Scalise showed today that for whatever weaknesses he has, whipping support for himself in a leadership election isn’t one of them. Barring how he handles the new responsibility of the whip position, he’ll likely be highly difficult to dislodge.