Lynnel Ruckert was at Nationals Park for a charity event with her two elementary school-aged children on June 10, 2014 when she first heard the news: then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor had lost the Virginia primary.
His defeat sent shock waves through Capitol Hill and a ripple effect through the House GOP leadership team. And it opened up the majority whip slot that Ruckert's boss Steve Scalise, then the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, had been positioning himself to capture—albeit not so suddenly.
Ruckert's husband Kyle, the longtime chief of staff to Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, immediately called her so they could make arrangements to get the kids home from the game. "I guess you need to go to work," he told her.
"And I said, 'Why don't you bring a bottle of wine?'" Ruckert says now, laughing. "Luckily he's in the business, so he said, 'Good luck, I'll see you in a couple of weeks.'" What ensued was a major leadership race condensed into just over a week. Ruckert, employing the mantra "speed kills," orchestrated an upset that catapulted third-term congressman Scalise to the post of No. 3 Republican in the House. With the victory, Ruckert—Scalise's chief of staff since his first term—became the highest-ranking House Republican female staffer on Capitol Hill.
"It was such an intense eight days," the Louisiana congressman says. Ruckert had to "make sure every single minute was being used effectively, because you just don't have the days to reach out to all of the membership."
Sitting in her sunlit office in the spacious suite of Capitol real estate reserved for the whip and his staff, Ruckert says winning that race against then-Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam was the proudest moment of her 14 years on the Hill.
"It was a war. It was a battle. It was fun," she says, hesitating for a moment. "Fun to look back on."
That intensity has defined Ruckert's time on the Hill. Fiercely loyal to her boss, she describes herself as his "follow-through," the one who logistically realizes the gregarious southerner's hyperactive visions. She is the one responsible for implementing his signature lagniappe— Cajun for "a little something extra"—sending personalized engraved plates to GOP members or handing out bags of Zapp's Cajun Crawtator chips. She can also serve a spoonful of sugar on a knife, sources say, stridently pushing for those who supported Scalise from the start and against others who did not.
"She's definitely the steel magnolia," says Parker Poling, Ruckert's friend, neighbor and close collaborator as chief of staff to Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry of North Carolina. "She's friendly and she smiles and she's Southern, but she's very tough too. "¦ She's just not a pushover. She's surprisingly tough."
Ruckert, who was raised by politically inclined Republican parents in suburban New Orleans, has only staffed home-state members. She worked her way up from being an aide on the Energy and Commerce Committee when it was helmed by Rep. Billy Tauzin, to a scheduler in Vitter's office when he held the House seat Scalise now occupies, to a legislative aide to then-Rep. Bobby Jindal, before being selected by Scalise as his chief.
But she says she doesn't think of herself as a woman in a high-ranking position in Congress' male-dominated environment. She does, however, consider herself a lady—a distinction evidenced by a Southern gentility personified by former Democratic Rep. Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, she says. Ruckert says they met a few times, and she keeps Boggs' autobiography on her office end table as an aide-mémoire.
"I keep that book there to remind me that you can be a lady and get things done," she says. "I do embrace my femininity. I wear jewelry and send thank-you notes. "¦ I like to wear a piece of Louisiana jewelry every day so I don't forget my roots," she continued, showing off a fleur-de-lis necklace and matching bracelet.
In addition to Scalise, she credits strong female role models for her drive, mainly Marty Driesler, now deceased, a former chief to Vitter."
Some people think, 'Oh, you're the scheduler, you can only work in that aspect.' I said [to Driesler], 'I've kind of got this scheduling thing after six months, think I could get an issue?' And she said, 'Absolutely,'" Ruckert says. "She was inspiring, I think, to all the staff. "¦ She was like 4'11" looking up to David Vitter saying, 'That's not a good idea.'"
She added: "You can stand up to your boss. Because you need to give them the honest truth." That same attitude is what Scalise says he hopes Ruckert imparts on other young women working on Capitol Hill.
"Hopefully it encourages other women to want to move up and want to be in a position like chief of staff, and it shows that it's achievable even at the highest levels of leadership," he says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Lynnel Ruckert's husband. It is Kyle.
Daniel Newhauser is a staff correspondent for National Journal, where he primarily covers the House of Representatives. He was formerly a House leadership reporter for Roll Call, where he started as an intern in 2010 and quickly earned a slot as a beat reporter.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Newhauser traveled further West to study journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and write for newspapers including the East Valley Tribune and the Green Valley News & Sun.