House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy has what appears to be a wide-open route to the No. 2 spot in the House Republican leadership after conservatives' favored candidate, Jeb Hensarling, said he wouldn't run for majority leader.
McCarthy's path to winning next Thursday's special election still has obstacles. But one of the biggest people in his way, Representative Pete Sessions, abruptly dropped his bid to replace Majority Leader Eric Cantor Thursday night.
But Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho could still give McCarthy a challenge. Labrador is quietly considering a campaign for majority leader, according to a source familiar with the congressman's thinking, potentially setting up a three-way race to replace Cantor.
Sessions, the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, argued before dropping out that he'd be the conservative who could bridge the House GOP's internal divide. "Texans, Georgians, Pennsylvanians—I can bring us together," he said.
Unlike Hensarling, Sessions seemed to be a long shot to topple McCarthy and his vote-counting machine. Sessions is not nearly as popular among conservatives in the conference, and while he has a strong relationship with Speaker John Boehner, most of the establishment-allied Republicans are already rallying behind McCarthy.
The dominoes don't stop falling there.
If McCarthy wins the majority leader's post next Thursday, there will be an immediate and subsequent contest to replace him as majority whip. It was thought that this race would feature Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois going head-to-head, and senior Republicans pegged Scalise as the odds-on favorite. But Representative Marlin Stutzman let it be known Thursday morning that he, too, will run, complicating the math of that contest as Stutzman could draw some conservative support away from Scalise.
Scalise's team pushed back against that notion Thursday afternoon, and one ally of the Louisiana Republican even argued that Scalise was close to clinching "the magic number" of supporters needed to sew up the race for majority whip. Scalise hoped to have the race wrapped up by Thursday evening when lawmakers leave town for the weekend, although that seems highly unlikely.
Stutzman, a third-term lawmaker from Indiana, is popular in the conference and especially well-liked by the young conservatives who comprised the classes of 2010 and 2012. He also enjoys good relations with powerful conservative groups outside the Capitol. Stutzman may be a more attractive option to the younger Republican Study Committee members than Scalise, whose leadership of the group—some call it a "debate society"—has drawn grumbles from some members looking for a more assertive approach.
It's not clear that Stutzman can win—odds are, he probably can't—but if he successfully splinters the conservative vote, Roskam could claim the whip's office with a coalition of moderates and establishment-friendly conservatives.
Whatever the outcome, the whip's race seems destined to be more competitive and suspenseful than the contest to replace Cantor. McCarthy, whose vote-counting operation was humming as of Wednesday morning, starts the contest with a significant lead on a possible challenger.