Conservatives Fail to Delay Leadership Votes; McCarthy, Scalise Looking Strong

Thursday's House leadership race looks to favor the most established candidates.

Rep. Steve Scalise (National Journal)

House conservatives failed Wednesday morning with a last-ditch effort to delay Thursday's leadership elections by one week, a victory for well-organized candidates like Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Steve Scalise, both of whom are favored to win their respective races.

Conservatives have quietly been talking for several days about attempting to move back Thursday's election, saying the short turnaround — it will be held just eight days after Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced his forthcoming resignation — was not fair to candidates who are not as well-known throughout the conference.

Rep. Ted Yoho, a conservative second-term lawmaker, tackled the issue head-on Wednesday morning following a scheduled "candidates forum," proposing a resolution to push back the election by one week. Such a delay would have benefited Reps. Raul Labrador and Marlin Stutzman, who are underdogs in their respective contests for majority leader and majority whip — in part because they have had little time to organize and communicate with colleagues across the House GOP.

"Look, if your opponents' main strategy is to come in second, then I'm here to help them achieve that goal," Scalise said.

Leadership put it up for a voice vote, and the resolution failed — but not by a wide margin, according to its proponents.

"I felt comfortable with the way it turned out," Yoho said after the meeting. Asked why he introduced the resolution, he replied: "Because we're rushing into this. This is a historic and momentous time in our nation's history. And to rush into this, we're not doing our due diligence. ... I've got members coming up to me and saying, 'I don't know Raul. I don't know Marlin.'"

He added: "Mr. Cantor is going to be here until July 31. There's no reason to rush into this. And I just think it's wrong."

The impact of the tight turnaround is being felt more acutely in the whip's race — partially because Labrador was always going to be a long shot to defeat McCarthy, but also because the campaign to replace McCarthy is a three-candidate affair. With both Scalise and Rep. Peter Roskam well-known and well connected throughout the conference, Stutzman, having less than a week to organize his campaign, has settled on the only strategy he can: to force a second ballot.

"Get to the second ballot," Stutzman told National Journal after Wednesday's forum. "On the second ballot, all bets are off."

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is whipping votes for Stutzman, said their team is focused solely on eliminating someone — it would have to be Roskam — on the first ballot. If successful, only then will their attention turn to defeating Scalise head-to-head. "We can multi-task sometimes but at this moment we are not [focused on the second ballot]," Jordan said.

Scalise, whom both rivals' camps acknowledge as the front-runner, told reporters that his team has contingency plans for a second and even, potentially, a third ballot. "We are talking to people in both camps," he said, about switching their allegiances later in the process if no candidate gets a majority on the first vote.

"Look, if your opponents' main strategy is to come in second, then I'm here to help them achieve that goal," Scalise said.

The candidates forum offered the five candidates for the two leadership jobs a chance to make their first and only pitch to the entire GOP Conference before Thursday afternoon's vote. But there were no fireworks; indeed, according to people in the room, the contenders were telling their colleagues behind closed doors almost exactly what they've been saying in public.

"It was nothing too profound," said Rep. Peter King of New York.

That said, attendance at the forum was conspicuously sparse. Many members were seen filing into the meeting room, located in the House basement, at least an hour into the scheduled event. Sources in the room said the first period of the meeting, dedicated to a question-and-answer session with McCarthy and Labrador, was attended by only 50 or 60 lawmakers — the vast majority of whom were Labrador supporters there to voice frustrations with the current leadership team. That so many members arrived only for the portion dedicated to the whip's race reflects the belief that McCarthy already has the majority leader's post locked down.

The elections will be held in private Thursday afternoon, and the voting is by secret ballot. If McCarthy wins the leader's race, as expected, a subsequent election will be held immediately thereafter to replace him as whip.

Stutzman said Wednesday that he has spoken with both Scalise and Roskam this week, and while the Hoosier State lawmaker insisted he's "running to win," he didn't shut the door on cutting a deal with either of his competitors. "I'll talk to anybody," Stutzman said.

Billy House contributed to this article