Andrew Harnik / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Man Who Would Be Speaker

The odds are against Steve Scalise—but he's used to that.

They began praying without him. It was already 30 minutes past 7 a.m., when Jefferson Parish’s April prayer breakfast was scheduled to begin. More than 100 Louisianans had driven in for the event, filing into the room to a soundtrack of God bless yous and I’m so glad to see yous, women in Easter-egg-colored dresses and men in starched button-downs. The mood was buoyant until it wasn’t. They were there to eat and pray but after a half hour had done neither so decided maybe it was best just to go ahead and pray.

The attendees bowed their heads, and a political aide rubbed her temples. “Oh, God, Steve,” she whispered.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise is chronically late. He’s constantly caught up in conversation—with anyone, really—while his aides wait like children whose parents have stumbled upon friends in the produce aisle. When he finally arrived to the prayer breakfast, flanked by his security detail, he beamed as though he’d never seen a place so special—this hairspray-scented ballroom in a two-star hotel below an overpass. He strode toward the makeshift stage, aided by two purple crutches, and suddenly all was forgiven. People stood and applauded, as though Scalise weren’t late, the rest of us just early.

Since joining Congress in 2008, Scalise, round-faced with thinning hair and moon-size eyes, has been something of a hometown hero. If pride in one’s roots is a virtue, then Scalise is the patron saint. He passes out multicolored beads and slices of King Cake to his colleagues every Mardi Gras. When the 52-year-old joined House leadership in 2014, Capitol Police code-named him “Tiger” after the mascot of Louisiana State University, his alma mater. It’s a Bayou-country devotion that borders on parody, and his constituents have long appreciated him for it.

But this, of course, was not why the crowd erupted in applause, or why, after the program, middle-aged women sandwiched Scalise for photos as though he were a young Rick Springfield. In the span of a year, Scalise has gone from being an otherwise nameless lawmaker to the Donald Trump-christened “Legend from Louisiana”—from a reliable booster of coastal restoration to someone who, his supporters now believe, is an essential component of God’s plan for America.

Last June, Scalise was standing near second base at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, when a gunman opened fire. The first shots rang out just after 7 a.m. A few moments later, a 7.62-caliber bullet scissored through Scalise’s left hip, shredding organs and muscle tissue and shattering his femur.

His trauma surgeons told me it was “astounding” he made it to the hospital alive.

Scalise prefers the word “miraculous.” It was a miracle he lived through that first night after the shooting, and a miracle when, 15 weeks later, he rose from his wheelchair and walked into the House chamber to get back to work. “I know He has a plan for me,” he told me a few hours after that prayer breakfast in April. “I don’t know what it is just yet.”

His allies have an idea: “He had guardian angels,” Janet Schwary of the Jefferson Parish GOP Women’s Club told me, “and there’s time now for him to lead.”

Many on the Hill initially squirmed when I asked about Scalise’s political future. It’s almost taboo to suggest that tragedy can double as opportunity. But there’s no denying that the shooting has helped make Scalise a plausible candidate for the most powerful job in the U.S. House of Representatives. As Representative Jackie Walorski of Indiana put it: “He’s got such a story today to touch a nation.”

Scalise now finds himself at the coveted intersection of political clout and electoral opportunity. Last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan told his conference that he would not seek reelection. The announcement sparked whispers across the conference about who would succeed him for the gavel. Scalise’s name was chief among them.

Which is to say that for one of the first times in his congressional career, Scalise might be right on time. He just can’t say that out loud.

It was barely light out on the morning of April 11 when Paul Ryan started making calls. His decision to hang it up wasn’t a surprise. The speaker’s repeated insistence that he never wanted the job had become a joke (and, after two-and-a-half years, borderline annoyance) among some staffers. Nevertheless, for Scalise and his colleagues, the news felt sudden: Ambitious people, after all, prefer ample time to strategize.

When Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy reached Scalise and his deputy whip, Patrick McHenry, shortly after hanging up with Ryan, he sounded somewhat harried. Ryan would announce his plans to the full conference in the House basement at 9 a.m., and McCarthy requested that Scalise and McHenry convene privately in his office beforehand.

The subtext of the meeting was clear: Together, the three men represented the most likely standard-bearers of House Republican leadership in the post-Ryan era. McCarthy wanted to ensure that each knew his part before the circus began.

Even as their voters lionize “outsiders,” Republicans remain partial to a pecking order in Congress. In October 2015, McCarthy had launched a bid to succeed John Boehner as speaker, only to stun the conference—and Boehner himself—by dropping out the morning of the election. The general consensus was that he didn’t have the votes. When he dropped back to his post as majority leader, it pushed Scalise—who was running for majority leader himself, and widely perceived as a lock—to bow out in favor of another term as majority whip.

Now, almost three years later, it is once more McCarthy’s turn to reach for the gavel. Yet weeks before the speaker’s announcement, chatter started building that the conference prefers Scalise. On March 26, Representative Mark Amodei of Nevada told a local radio host, “The rumor mill is that Paul Ryan is getting ready to resign in the next 30 to 60 days and that Steve Scalise will be the new speaker.”

That same week, Scalise told Politico’s Rachael Bade that he wouldn’t “rule out” making a bid for speaker if opportunity knocked. “Obviously, I’ve shown interest in the past at moving up,” he said. The statements implied that the spot could, in fact, open up soon—and, more important, that there was no consensus yet on who should be the one to fill it.

Such was the backdrop of McCarthy’s meeting with Scalise and McHenry that April morning. Standing near a giant portrait of Ronald Reagan, McCarthy made plain that it was still his turn. He affirmed to Scalise and McHenry that he would support them in their races—meaning, implicitly, for majority leader and majority whip. As for the speakership, he asked, according to two senior leadership aides briefed on the meeting: “Are you going to support me?” Scalise and McHenry both nodded. (A spokesman for McCarthy declined to comment. A senior leadership aide said that the meeting “was just to get everyone together and on the same page.”)

Yet Scalise initially appeared unwilling to publicly endorse McCarthy. In a Fox News appearance the morning after Ryan’s announcement, Scalise reiterated that he had “never run against Kevin, and wouldn’t run against Kevin”—but stopped short of supporting him. “And then he got backed into a corner,” one senior leadership aide told me. Ryan told reporters later that morning he was “encouraged” that Scalise agreed McCarthy was the heir apparent—seeming to imply, incorrectly, that Scalise had offered his endorsement. In one breath, Ryan had made clear his preference for McCarthy and issued Scalise a warning shot about challenging him for the job.

By sunset, Scalise’s office, frustrated by the “barrage of questions,” had issued a statement backing McCarthy.

But privately, according to multiple sources close to Scalise, he and his team are skeptical that McCarthy can get the 218 votes he needs. This may be Scalise’s moment in terms of his national recognition and conference-wide appeal, but he knows that, in order to seize it, McCarthy will have to stumble. Again.

If there were “some complication” in McCarthy’s path to 218 votes, “there’s no question Steve would step up to the plate,” Representative Steve Womack of Arkansas, who describes himself as a Scalise “loyalist,” told me. When I asked Scalise if this was in fact the case, he demurred. “I won’t get into hypotheticals,” he said.

Yet the hypothetical matters. Should Republicans keep the House in November, Ryan’s successor will play a defining role in the next chapter of Trump’s White House. The separation of powers was once gospel for Republicans. Now, House GOP leadership acts not so much as a check on the president as an eager extension of his id. But even as Paul Ryan has been a dutiful foot soldier for Trump, he’s managed to skirt any real progress on issues dearest to the president, such as the construction of a border wall. A Scalise speakership would be different. Whereas McCarthy, an archetypal establishment figure but political chameleon, could likely believe in any president, Scalise believes in Trump. A partnership between them could enshrine Trumpism as the future of the GOP. It could enshrine Trumpism as the future of the country, too.

Scalise established himself early in his tenure as one of the House’s most conservative members. When he became chair of the chamber’s Republican Study Committee (RSC) in 2012, he helped mold it into a restive but powerful coalition of purists. In urging his 100-plus members to vote en bloc against many GOP leadership proposals, he bolstered the forces that led John Boehner to deem the job of speaker—the job Scalise now wants—“impossible.” Scalise’s predecessor, Jim Jordan, may have founded the hard-right Freedom Caucus after determining the RSC to be insufficiently pure, but you’d be hard-pressed to find points where the two men diverged ideologically. Scalise is a pro-life immigration hawk who, even in the aftermath of his own shooting, remains a staunch advocate of gun rights. Just how far right Scalise leans came into question in 2014, when it was revealed that in 2002 he had spoken at a gathering affiliated with David Duke—though he has strenuously denied knowledge of the group’s white-supremacist ties. Taken together, his conservative bona fides could help him pick off crucial votes from Freedom Caucus members who bristle at McCarthy’s more moderate bent.

Scalise’s ardency for politics started in childhood. His younger sister, Tara, remembers a 7-year-old Scalise dashing up to her one Saturday morning and begging her to join him by the television: The Schoolhouse Rock! commercial had just come on. “You know, ‘I’m just a bill. Yes, I’m only a bill,’” Tara, who has the same big, bright eyes as her brother, recalled with a laugh. “From then on he would always grab me and be like, ‘Watch! Look! This is how a bill is made!’ And I’m like, ‘Um, no, I have to get my cereal. We’re on a commercial.’”

Scalise grew up in a two-story brick home in Metairie, one of New Orleans’s largest suburbs, a collection of largely middle-class families living in ranch-style houses. His mother, Carol, stayed at home and raised Scalise, Tara, and their older brother, Glenn. (Scalise and his mother were especially close, his hometown friends told me, his extroversion a direct reflection of hers.) Their father, Al, stonier and more reserved, worked long hours in commercial real estate. Neither went to college. Tara describes their upbringing in quintessentially American vignettes: Sunday steak-and-potato dinners and summer days spent playing basketball in the driveway, pinball in the garage.

At Archbishop Rummel High School, the all-boys Catholic school Scalise attended in Metairie—whose motto, “To give one’s life for the sheep,” is painted in big red script along a hallway wall—he preferred toying with computers to joining student government. It wasn’t until he was 18 that a childhood affinity for Schoolhouse Rock! matured into something like ideology. Or perhaps ideology is the wrong word: Like many would-be Republicans his age, Scalise listened to Ronald Reagan speak and found his love of country inspiring. “You just connected with him,” he said.

Political-science classes at Louisiana State University and a leadership role in student council (speaker, no less) helped pull a more concrete belief system into focus. Scalise is not an intellectual. There was no seminal text that sparked or framed his conservatism. But along with Reagan’s appeal, he told me, a gubernatorial debate on campus in 1987 proved influential. As Scalise tells it, a student asked incumbent Democratic governor Edwin Edwards: What would you tell students who want to leave Louisiana after graduation for better opportunities elsewhere?

“He said, ‘I'd tell them to leave,’” Scalise recalled. “And that just struck me in a shocking way: that this is what’s wrong with the state, that they want the best and the brightest to leave, that their policies were creating an atmosphere where nobody could get a good job. … That just lit a fire under me.”

On the morning of Tara’s 18th birthday, Scalise told her to hop in the car, that he had a surprise for her. It was a trip to the city clerk’s office so she could register to vote. “When they ask you whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” he instructed her, according to Tara, “you’ll say ‘Republican.’”

Scalise understands better than most the Tip O’Neill-favored dictum that all politics is local. In 1995, the 29-year-old launched his first bid for the state House in District 82. He was young and single, working at a software company where he wrote training and deployment systems for the Navy Reserve (today, he’s one of two programmers in Congress). He didn’t have money and didn’t come from money. So his family and a cadre of college friends helped him campaign, knocking on doors and hosting $10-ticket fundraising dinners with spaghetti prepared by his aunt and a keg donated by a local bar. He wrote a FoxPro software package on his home computer to manage voter files and track door-knocking by precinct. In six months, Scalise said, they’d raised $15,000 and knocked on 10,000 doors. He won the primary with 68 percent of the vote.

As he reminisced about the race after the prayer breakfast in Metairie, Scalise’s enthusiasm seemed too much for his 5-foot-8-inch frame. “I mean, we just literally did grassroots stuff!” he said, leaning forward on his elbows. “It was unbelievable!”

The race for Louisiana 82—which at the time was more populist and blue-collar than traditionally conservative—emblematized Scalise’s ability not so much to sell conservatism, but to sell himself. As his longtime friend Stephen Gele put it, “People just liked him.”

It was a helpful attribute when he campaigned for Bobby Jindal’s House seat in 2008, and then for RSC chair in 2012. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who was once RSC chair himself, told me that Scalise was rare in his ability to “bridge the gap between all the factions within the RSC.” Despite his right-leaning positions, a pragmatic edge, which sharpened as he rose the ranks of leadership, helped endear him to more moderate members, too. In a political moment defined by extremes, it’s a meaningful feat. “Before he gained national prominence because of the tragedy,” Price added, this was Scalise’s calling card.

Being well-liked, however, can only get you so far. Reaching the top job often requires something more than enthusiasm—it requires a recognizable brand. Ryan, for example, may not have been the warmest and friendliest of the bunch, but he was known as the wonky ingenue who, in another life, could’ve been Mitt Romney’s vice president. And McCarthy was the kind of backslapper who, while not the sharpest on policy, could seduce you into believing you were in the presence of a political mastermind.

And always just outside the frame was Scalise. Even his close friends acknowledged that Scalise has struggled to evince an X factor. As Gele put it: “He doesn’t come off as anything super special.” There’s a reason that, in the wake of the tragedy on the baseball field last June, even this magazine felt the need to post a quick explainer, asking the question then on everyone’s mind: “Who is Steve Scalise?”

In the aftermath of the shooting, while many Americans were struggling to place Scalise’s name, President Trump was on his way to MedStar Washington Hospital Center with First Lady Melania and two bouquets of white flowers. When the first couple entered his room, Scalise was unconscious, recovering from two surgeries. But his wife of 13 years, Jennifer, was there to greet them. As Melania embraced her, Jennifer burst into tears.

The visit and subsequent check-up calls from the president fortified an already strong relationship between the two men. Scalise had endorsed Trump early in the election, announcing in May 2016 that he supported the real-estate mogul as a path to conservative Supreme Court justices and tax reform. He told me he had no qualms about backing Trump, even in the aftermath of the Access Hollywood tape. “At that point you recognize the timing of things,” he said. “Clearly, someone in the media had that, and were holding it until the end to drop it as a bombshell to help elect Hillary Clinton.” (There is no evidence this was the case.) Scalise also echoes some of the president’s preferred rhetoric, blaming the “mainstream media” for poor polling numbers on tax reform and referring to Robert Mueller’s investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign as a “witch hunt.”

Still, Trump’s first instinct when Ryan announced his retirement, according to a senior White House official and another source familiar with the matter, was to endorse McCarthy. The two had cultivated a close bond throughout the campaign, when McCarthy saw opportunity even as his colleagues saw crisis. “Kevin saw an opening to make himself Trump’s guy in the House,” according to a source familiar with McCarthy’s thinking. It worked. Several House leadership sources told me that Trump and McCarthy speak multiple times a week, often in late-night phone calls from the residence. As The Washington Post reported, the president refers to the California Republican as “my Kevin.”
Officials including Vice President Mike Pence, however, discouraged Trump from getting involved, the sources said. “The White House … believes it’s up to the conference to resolve the situation,” a senior White House official told me.

Four days after Ryan’s announcement, McCarthy phoned Marty Obst, a Pence confidant aligned with the administration’s outside political operation, for an update on the White House’s position. Obst told him that Pence had talked Trump out of tweeting his support for the majority leader, according to a GOP donor who was with Obst during the call. Even so, the source added, Obst expressed optimism that an endorsement would come “soon.”

That optimism was rooted in a belief that Ryan would cave to pressure, retire early, and spare his colleagues the political toll of a lame-duck speakership. Yet over a month later, the speaker appears more insistent than ever about “running through the tape,” as he puts it. This, in spite of the sharpening image of a House verging on collapse: Earlier this month, a humiliated leadership failed to usher through a White House-backed farm bill.

Leadership aides told me that McCarthy and Scalise’s shadowboxing could yield a conference-wide breakdown in the coming weeks, as House Democrats and moderate Republicans agitate for a vote on immigration legislation that addresses the fate of “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “Kevin and Steve will try to outdo each other from the right when immigration comes to the floor to score points with conservatives,” one leadership aide predicted. Neither will be willing to push the Freedom Caucus on DACA, the aide added, meaning that yet another legislative item could combust ahead of the November midterms.

The senior White House official told me that Trump is “aware of the anxiety expressed by some members” about Ryan’s prolonged presence. At stake for McCarthy and his allies is not just a damaged conference ahead of the midterms, but also McCarthy’s status as heir apparent. “Time doesn’t favor McCarthy’s chances,” another senior White House official said. The thinking: The longer conservatives have to needle the California Republican, or to fine-tune a list of demands in return for votes, the worse his prospects.

“Kevin is absolutely not pushing Paul out,” a source in constant contact with McCarthy told me. “But does he believe this situation is helpful? Of course not.” (Ryan declined to comment for this story.)

Time, then, may favor Scalise. The Louisiana Republican seems to know it, too—or at least to recognize that McCarthy still has an uphill battle. As we talked in his high school’s cafeteria that day, I asked him if he thought McCarthy could reach 218. “He’s working at it,” Scalise said.

I knew when Scalise stopped talking that the baseball field was near. We were driving through Anacostia in a black SUV on Wednesday when he paused mid-sentence to look out the window. Moments later, the field flickered into view, like an apparition in the late afternoon light. Scalise’s eyes traced the edges. “Just trying to see how the perimeter’s set up,” he said.

We hadn’t talked much about the shooting. He does not think of his life, he told me, as a before and after. There are flashes of that day he can’t bury, of course: How he thought the pop pop pop might be a tractor backfiring, because it didn’t occur to him, at least at first, that someone could be shooting at him with an SKS semi-automatic rifle. How it did occur to him, when he was hit, that he may never walk his daughter down the aisle.

We parked behind the bleachers. Scalise steadied himself against his crutches and eased out of the car. He wore a yellow LSU jersey, jeans, and a purple mesh Alexandria Little League baseball cap. He carried the same glove he bought when he joined the team 10 years ago.

This was his first practice since the shooting. Republicans were scrimmaging ahead of the annual Congressional Baseball Game in three weeks. His wife, Jennifer, wasn’t crazy about him being there. Neither was his 11-year-old daughter, Madison, who still gets upset by sudden noises, like a plate shattering at a restaurant.

It was a curious feeling, watching the typically confident congressman shout dorky taunts at his colleagues from the dugout. His voice got louder with every one-liner—less because he wanted the others to hear him, it seemed, than because he wanted to hear himself. To convince himself that he was there, clutching a glove just like all the others. Representative Trent Kelly of Mississippi jogged by. “You woulda been thrown out at first if I was playing, buddy,” Scalise said, his hands cupped around his mouth. He had a huge smile on his face. It was the first time I had ever seen him sad.

“I wanna be out playing,” he said.

As afternoon stretched into evening, member after member came over to exchange a fist-bump in the dugout, to tell him he looked good, ask about the kids. Then-Representative Jack Bergman of Michigan walked over and said, out of nowhere: “It was meant to be.”

I’m not sure what he was referring to. Maybe that Scalise’s visit had fallen on the first nice night in May. Maybe that Scalise was standing there at all. Scalise didn’t acknowledge it, really, but asked if Bergman would throw him a pitch or two.

They walked just outside the foul line. Scalise’s arms and torso twisted with each pitch, as he tried to maintain balance without moving his legs. Bergman increased the distance between them and began throwing grounders. Members cheered as Scalise scooped up each one. “Scalise, get out there at second!” someone yelled.

A smile—a real one this time—spread across his face. And for a split second, Steve Scalise looked ready to make a run for it.