Rep. Andy Harris dropped his bid to become chairman of the Republican Study Committee on Tuesday following the sudden death of his wife, likely paving the way for Rep. Mick Mulvaney to run away with the vote.
Harris had been seen as the main challenger to Mulvaney to lead the influential conservative group in the next Congress, and had already assembled a team of whips that included staunch conservatives such as Reps. Tim Huelskamp and John Fleming.
But his wife, Sylvia "Cookie" Harris, died late last month, leaving behind five children, including a 14-year-old son. Harris told members of the RSC at their weekly meeting Tuesday afternoon that he would bow out of the race to tend to his family.
Mulvaney still faces a challenge from Reps. Cynthia Lummis, Louie Gohmert, and Bill Flores, but members and aides said that unless another candidate with more support from the group joins the race, the brash South Carolinian will almost certainly win.
"I think Mulvaney's definitely got the edge. He's the one that's been out working it," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, one of Mulvaney's whips.
The candidates will make their case on Thursday in meetings with the group's founders, a cabal composed of RSC founding member Rep. Sam Johnson; ex-chairmen such as Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, and Rep. Tom Price; and honorary founders such as Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. The group will prescreen the candidates and certify whom they will allow on the ballot, and then the RSC will vote after the November elections.
Mulvaney has already secured a strong base of support, since he expressed his desire months ago to be the next leader of the group. Former RSC Chairman Jim Jordan is one of his whips, and he also has support from Hensarling and Ryan.
Mulvaney, however, still faces some tough questions about his past policy statements and whether he can return the group to its vaunted status among conservatives. Some believe its mission has been diluted by its swollen membership, since some two-thirds of the Republican Conference are members.
In particular, members of the Armed Services Committee, more than 20 of whom are members of the RSC, are worried that Mulvaney has publicly expressed willingness to cut the defense budget in pursuit of reducing the national debt and deficit.
Reps. Trent Franks and Robert Wittman spearheaded a letter recently calling on the founders to endorse a candidate who has demonstrated support for the military.
"One of the issues for me, as someone who's on the Armed Services Committee, is taking care of our military," Rep. Austin Scott said. "I don't want to sacrifice national security for the sake of dollars in the budget."
Recognizing that, Mulvaney has been meeting one-on-one with members to assuage their concerns. He said in an interview that neither the Republican Party nor the RSC is monolithic on this issue, and he wants to be able to represent the entire group, libertarians and defense hawks alike.
"There are folks in our party who are war weary and there are folks who are still very much strong hawks on defense," he said. "I'm trying to find a way to bridge those two groups because they are both very real groups in the RSC."
Yet another problem for Mulvaney is his stance on immigration reform. Earlier this year, he controversially endorsed a pathway to legal status for immigrants living in the country illegally, a position many in the RSC do not believe speaks for them.
"The concern I have about Mulvaney is he seems to be forward-leaning on amnesty, and I don't think that's an RSC value," Fleming said. "He's pushed for continued cuts to defense and he's kind of dovish on amnesty. I think that's going to be a problem."
Mulvaney, however, said that he does not support amnesty and that suggestions to the contrary had been spread by people outside the Capitol.
Whoever wins the RSC chairmanship will face the task of unifying a group that has left some core members disillusioned. Rep. Thomas Massie said he left the RSC within the last year over disagreements with the direction of the group. He and others—including Mulvaney—joined a rival invite-only debate society called the House Liberty Caucus.
But he said any of the candidates for the RSC chairmanship would be good enough to lure him back.
"Eric Cantor was a member of RSC," Massie said, noting an example of how the group had strayed. But, he added, "if they elect a good candidate, I'll join."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect age for one of Harris's sons.