House leadership elections passed with little drama, but on Tuesday a group of Republicans will cast a vote in one of the conference's few contested races, one that could shape the party's degree of unity in the new Congress.
The debate over who will chair the Republican Study Committee has been a microcosm of the larger conversation playing out within the Republican Party, exposing differences between libertarian versus traditional Republican values and leadership-aligned members versus hard-liners.
The group's choice will decide how the so-called conservative rudder of the House interacts with leadership and outside groups, and it may have an impact on whether the party takes up immigration legislation or cuts military spending.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina has been campaigning the longest and is the apparent front-runner. But a pair of Texans are flanking him. Rep. Bill Flores is seeking to set himself apart by promising a more agreeable relationship with leadership and a focus on protecting the defense budget. Long-shot candidate Louie Gohmert, meanwhile, offers a third choice for members who think the other two have been too soft on immigration issues by endorsing a pathway to legal status.
Flores, who is close to the RSC's former chairman, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, said he wants to continue the collaborative tone Scalise struck, working with leaders to reach achievable policy goals rather than advocating for measures that have no chance of passing the Senate or being signed by President Obama.
"I'm not a bomb-thrower. When I disagree with leadership, I tell them, but I do it privately. I don't get on the TV and run down our leadership," Flores said in an interview. "I think we need to make sure it's more of a collaborative relationship with leadership rather than conflict."
Mulvaney, on the other hand, said it would be inappropriate for the group to select a chairman who would kowtow to leadership. He said he would work with leaders when appropriate, but he adds that he has and will butt heads with them when he and the group see fit.
"The role of the RSC is not to buddy up to leadership, not to be a shill for leadership," he said. "I don't think it's right for someone to sell themselves as being an RSC chair who will work with leadership."
But Mulvaney added that he wants to continue to reduce conservative outside groups' role in the process. Groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth have facilitated tension within the conference in the past, pressing members to vote against leadership-driven compromises, such as the farm bill.
Gohmert promised a more visible RSC. He said he has connections to numerous media outlets and wants to promote RSC members with more TV and radio appearances.
He also took issue with both Flores and Mulvaney for having tried to help leaders find passable immigration legislation and having said they would support a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants already in the United States.
"I think that would be a problem, and I think that if we ended up having a leader who was supportive of some type of amnesty, the RSC would have come full circle from keeping the party leaders on track to keep our promises with the American public to helping the leadership break our promises," Gohmert said.
Both Flores and Mulvaney, however, said they would not let their personal views overtake the view of the RSC as a whole.
"Louie is a member of the ship-them-home-in-boxcars caucus, and I respect that," Mulvaney said. But he added that a chairman must be able to represent the views of the conference as a whole.
Flores said his constituents, almost half of whom are nonwhite, want Congress to act on a measure granting legalized status, provided immigrants learn English, pay back taxes and come out of the shadows in other ways. But he said he would not advocate for that as RSC chairman if it goes beyond what the group as a whole believes.
"I'll let my colleagues in the RSC determine where they want to go. I'm not trying to press my particular viewpoint or the viewpoints of where my constituents are," Flores said.
Flores is attempting to set himself apart on defense as well. Mulvaney took flack from members of the Armed Services Committee earlier this year for his past calls to cut some defense spending. Flores said he would seek to increase military spending.