House Leadership Vote Will Reveal Just How Strong the Tea Party Really Is

House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy of California Photograph by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

No matter what the outcome of Thursday’s House GOP leadership elections, Tea Party conservatives are bound to come away disappointed. Last week in Virginia, their activists knocked off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whom they had come to view as a member of the establishment and an enemy. This sent a jolt through Republican ranks. But rather than lead to a Tea Party takeover of leadership, the likeliest outcome appears to be the easy ascent of the No. 3 Republican, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, into Cantor’s place.

The race for McCarthy’s job, House majority whip, is wide open. But there’s a good chance that, after Thursday, the reordered GOP hierarchy will be more strongly establishment-minded, and more openly in favor of immigration reform, than the one Virginia Tea Party activists blew up.

Even so, the outcome of the leadership elections matters because it will signify just how strong Tea Party sentiment runs within the House GOP caucus. After several prominent contenders, including Paul Ryan and Jeb Hensarling, declined to run for majority leader, Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho became a late entrant into the race. Elected in 2010 from the one of the most conservative districts in the country, Labrador doesn’t have McCarthy’s high profile or his relationship with a broad swath of Republican House members. But as the only alternative to McCarthy’s establishment-friendly candidacy, Labrador’s support will be a revealing gauge of conservative lawmakers’ willingness to defect.

If Labrador draws only a dozen or so malcontents, House Speaker John Boehner may feel that he has more support and freedom to maneuver than Cantor’s shock loss seemed to suggest. On the other hand, if Labrador wins the support of 40-plus House members, it will be a clear warning to Boehner that he may not have the support to continue as speaker after the November elections. This would further constrain his ability to do much of anything.

The other big race, to replace McCarthy as whip, is being waged between establishment favorite Peter Roskam of Illinois, the Republican Study Committee chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, who is aligned with the Tea Party. According to Politico, Scalise’s allies claim he has more than 100 supporters, Roskam’s say they’re near 90, and Stutzman says he has around 50.

Roskam’s elevation to whip would be a clear rebuke of the Tea Party. But despite ranking as the fourth-most-conservative member of the House, according to National Journal, Scalise, should he emerge the winner, wouldn’t necessarily signal Tea Party strength because many hard-right members of Congress view him as a self-promoter not fully committed to the cause, and will likely support Stutzman instead.

There’s a sentiment among some conservatives that Stutzman doesn’t expect to win and is really positioning himself to succeed Scalise as head of the RSC. But even if some twist of fate elevates Stutzman into the ranks of leadership, Boehner’s grip on power—even if it’s only the symbolic power of a speaker who can’t control his caucus—won’t necessarily be threatened come November. To take control of the House, the Tea Party will first have to field viable candidates for top leadership positions. No matter what happens in Thursday’s proceedings, they have yet to demonstrate any concerted ability to do it.

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