Politics & Government

Race for House majority whip divides N.C. lawmakers

Several North Carolina lawmakers are front-and-center – but backstage – in the effort to drum up votes for their preferred candidates in this week’s battle over a key spot on the House Republicans’ leadership team.

In the election Thursday for House majority whip – the number three spot in the House hierarchy – Reps. Renee Ellmers and Patrick McHenry are backing staunch conservative and front-runner Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Tar Heel Republican Reps. Richard Hudson and George Holding, meanwhile, are behind Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, currently the chief deputy whip.

Roskam represents the GOP establishment and the status quo. The third whip candidate, Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana is a tea party ally and represents its bid to place a supporter into the House leadership. All three know the whip’s job can be a political springboard to bigger things.

Leading into the Thursday election, Scalise is said to have an edge, but the the three-way contest appears to be close. House leadership elections are held by secret ballot and most lawmakers keep quiet about their preferences. Support for a particular candidate depends on myriad factors, from friendship and loyalty, to political debts and promises.

“Going against the Republican party leadership can be problematic,” said Andrew Taylor, professor of political science at North Carolina State University. “Many of them will be reticent to make that public and work hard for, let’s just call it a `coup’ unless it’s sure to win.”

The upheaval inside the GOP caucus is the result of the surprise victory by a once unknown and underfunded tea party-backed candidate who defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia Republican primary last week. No sooner had David Brat, who teaches at Randolph-Macon College, notched his win than the race to replace Cantor was on.

Cantor’s likely successor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the current House majority whip, appears to have lined up more than enough support to move up the ladder. House majority leader is one rung below speaker of the House. McCarthy moved quickly to line up support. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party supporter, entered the race late last week.

In the 2012 mid-term elections, tea party-affiliated organizations donated to seven of North Carolina’s nine Republican lawmakers, including the four now playing inside roles in the whip race: McHenry, Hudson, Ellmers and Holding.

But despite the past campaign support, none has sided with Stutzman, who Dan Becker, treasurer and general counsel for the Tea Party Leadership Fund, one of many groups under the tea party banner, called the “only one real conservative in the race.”

He said that’s something the group won’t soon forget.

“I think it’s fair to say that the tea party would have hoped that those who have benefited would choose to be led by an authentic conservative,” said Becker. “These members may feel that we don’t care about their votes on this matter, but they are dead wrong. This is something the tea party will absolutely remember. It may be too late to do anything in this cycle, but it’s not for the next one.”

Ellmers, for instance, won her Second Congressional District seat in 2010 amid a wave of tea party-aided victories around the country. Her political profile has gotten got a boost over the past year as one of the GOP leadership go-to critics when it needed a lawmaker to put on television to criticize the health care law.

“Ellmers is the prototype who found from very early on that it’s possible to be supportive of the leadership, despite their ideological leanings,” said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University.

In an interview this week, the congresswoman said that her reputation as a tea party ally stemmed from when she was elected rather than her political identity. She characterized her connection as one simply of “like-mindedness” and said Scalise was a preferable candidate when she took “all things into consideration.”

“It’s important for North Carolina to play in this race particularly because we’re a red state,” Ellmers said. “Given the makeup of our conference, it would be imperative that a whip be from a red state.”

Ellmers added: “But I feel very strongly as a delegation that we don’t all have to be completely in line with the same thinking.”

Email: shaven@mcclatchydc.com.