I mentioned in this week’s podcast that the current state of the House GOP Speaker debacle-ship reminds me of the day Denny Hastert became Speaker. Hard on the heels of a disappointing (Clinton-Lewinsky) scandal mid-term, in rapid succession one Speaker and one Speaker designate were blown out of the water by extra-marital affairs. In a rush to safety, as the financial journalists have it, Rep. Denny Hastert was elected Speaker essentially by affirmation. The one thing Republicans wanted more than anything was a return to calm and Hastert’s biography and demeanor offered it. Certainly someone as frumpy and avuncular as normie embodiment Hastert wouldn’t be off cheating on his wife or bringing the caucus into disrepute. So Hastert it was.
Obviously, it didn’t turn out quite as expected. But that’s how it looked at the time.
Of the nine Republicans now vying to be Speaker, the man who comes closest to fitting that model is Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota. First of all he’s a current member of the leadership, actually the last one standing after the successive falls of McCarthy, Scalise and Jordan. And it’s difficult to emphasize how much of a norm it is that new congressional leaders come from the leadership line of succession. Whip becomes Majority Leader, Majority Leader become Speaker. The 1998 trauma response to make Hastert Leader was a slight departure. But he was Chief Deputy Whip, so a junior or second tier member of the leadership.
Emmer is also a non-bomb thrower and checks a lot of other calmness boxes. He voted to certify the 2020 election. He voted for the various deals averting debt defaults and government shutdowns. If you want to end the drama, he’s your guy. The only other contenders who are even adjacent to leadership are Kevin Hern, head of the Republican Study Committee and Mike Johnson, the Vice Chair of the Conference.
But Donald Trump is lobbying against him. As Kate Riga notes here, Trump’s influence is easy to overstate. He pushed for Jim Jordan and look how he ended up. Even Trump’s election endorsements tend to be timed to get a clear sense of a probable winner and swoop in to get the credit. But he’s certainly not without influence.
One detail to note is that a plurality winner can’t win the caucus leadership election. You have to win a majority. Especially in this context that’s critical. With nine candidates, someone could become the caucus choice with 30 votes. With nine candidates, that almost certainly means multiple votes with the lowest vote getter eliminated in each round. Absent Trump’s role I would figure Emmer would win and maybe quickly. That’s not because he’s so popular or able necessarily. He’s just the most obvious port in the storm. A number of the other candidates have only been in Congress a handful of terms. But Trump’s role at least complicates it.
While the eight who dethroned McCarthy were never going to agree to recant their actions and take him back, I have to imagine there is galactic pressure on them now to let this end. But at least in my limited understanding of the internal dynamics of the House GOP caucus, Emmer is at least arguably more of a squish than McCarthy. So they go through all this only to end up back where they started or even with a more deal-friendly Speaker. To be clear, Emmer isn’t some paragon of pre-Trump or pre-Freedom Caucus Republicanism. We’re talking here about very thin shades of difference. And it’s quite possible it’s a shade so fine that I’m not catching a lot of the nuance. But it would certainly seem like a big disappointment to the Trump lovers after a Jordan Speakership seemed within reach.
Here I’m talking about whether Emmer can get to a majority of the caucus. But the obvious and still unresolved question at the heart of this whole story is whether he could get 217 votes on the floor.
We’ll see soon enough!