The race for House majority whip in the next Congress is so heated that the three Republican candidates are already recruiting their own whips.
Emissaries for the whip contenders — Reps. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) — are helping drum up support among GOP colleagues if Republicans win back the majority in November, as expected. The trio's strategies for rounding up support in the race for what would be the No. 3 House GOP position are starting to diverge as they seep into view, from one-on-one meetings to group sessions.
And some House Republicans are already starting to go public with who they're backing for a post they don't yet control, a job tasked with getting the conference in line on certain votes as well as taking a pulse of where members are on particular issues.
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) says he is not only supporting Emmer, but is also helping the current House GOP campaigns chief court members for his whip bid.
“While Tom is working to win back a majority, I’ve been happy to talk to other members about his credentials for this role. What I can say is we have a geographically and ideologically diverse range of leaders within this conference backing Tom and his support is only going to increase,” Reschenthaler said in a statement.
“I hope every member considering the Whip’s race is spending as much time as Tom does trying to take back the House,” he added.
Another influential Emmer backer is Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who's poised to chair the Financial Services Committee in a GOP House, according to a Republican familiar with the matter. Another person familiar with the situation said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the former House Freedom Caucus chair, is also backing Emmer.
Additionally, a top Emmer aide has been conducting staff-to-staff outreach in senior offices as part of the effort, according to two other people close to the conversations.
Meanwhile, Banks — who chairs the Republican Study Committee, the largest House GOP caucus — has expanded beyond one-on-one member meetings and staffer-to-staffer calls by convening whip race strategy talks. Three separate Republicans confirmed that a group of Banks allies huddled on Wednesday, and one said it was that group's fourth or fifth meeting related to whip strategy.
Among the handful of members present at the Banks meeting were freshmen Reps. Troy Nehls (R-Texas), Mary Miller (R-Ill.) and August Pfluger (R-Texas), as well as Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.). Republicans familiar with the gathering said House chiefs of staff and other congressional aides represented the largest contingent of attendees.
“Banks has demonstrated himself as a very effective leader as the chair of the RSC,” Nehls said on Wednesday in a brief interview. “When he asked me for my help, my support, I said, ‘You're the guy. I think you'll do a great job.’”
The pro-Banks group, led by the congressman and his chief of staff, discussed where other whip candidates stood during their meeting, according to attendees, and concluded that Emmer was gaining ground after an unofficial and delayed start to his campaign. But Banks’ team remains optimistic about his chances in the race, including raising the potential for a second ballot.
“They feel pretty good,” said one person who attended the meeting.
Banks’ team also talked about how to possibly spin some of Emmer's past votes on social issues and defense legislation against him, such as his vote to codify same-sex marriage earlier this year, his support for blocking then-President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender soldiers in the military in 2019 and his opposition to the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2020.
The Hoosier is hoping to attract support from hawks such as House Armed Services Committee members and conservatives, including those close to Trump and those who aren’t as tethered to the former president.
Importantly, not every attendee at the meeting is openly backing Banks in the whip race; some demurred when asked, as did others seen as leaning toward Emmer or Ferguson. Lawmakers typically prefer to let candidates in leadership races know where they land as a courtesy, which partly explains the public hedging. Another factor: All three whip hopefuls are on the influential GOP Steering Committee, which determines chairmanships and committee assignments.
Ferguson, the current chief deputy whip, is seeking to shore up his own support among members from Southern states, making the pitch that he is already well prepared thanks to his current post.
Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), a freshman well-liked by party leadership, is throwing his support behind the Georgia Republican. To bolster his support, Gonzales points to Ferguson's mayoralty of a diverse community in West Point, Ga., before coming to the House.
“I'm all in. I've already spoken with members. I’ll continue to speak with members,” Gonzales said in a Thursday interview.
“When you talk about the Republican Party being more diverse, it can't just be words. It has to be actions, and it has to be people that have been around minority communities. Drew gets [that] better than anyone, so I really like that about him,” Gonzales added, lauding Ferguson for wielding “honey and a pinata stick” as chief deputy whip.
As the whip aspirants' support teams continue to form and mobilize, behind-the-scenes campaigning is expected to get more heated. A sizable crop of members remain uncommitted and likely to stay that way until after the midterms. Others have privately talked about the challenge of maintaining close relationships with multiple contenders in the race, making the whip campaigning more stressful.
However, some House Republicans say there's more clarity in the whip field now that Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) went public with her decision to run for another term as conference chair.
While Stefanik's plans sparked no shortage of internal speculation, she confirmed them only after POLITICO first reported freshman Rep. Byron Donalds' (R-Fla.) launch of his official bid for the GOP messaging role.
A small group of GOP lawmakers were seen as waiting out Stefanik in case she kept her options open through November. Now that she's committed to run for conference chair, which would be the No. 4 post in a majority, it has freed up members with home-state or other ties to Stefanik to become further involved in the whip race.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) was one of them. After previously withholding his support in the whip race while Stefanik mulled her choice, he's now signaled that he thinks Banks is a strong contender. (Gallagher’s chief of staff was present at Banks’ latest strategy meeting, according to two people interviewed for this story.)
“There's a strong argument to make [for] someone who understands the China threat, as well as someone who I think can make the case for higher defense spending while still being a fiscal conservative,” Gallagher said.
As for who has the lead, the three whip camps have their own competing whip counts. Some Republican lawmakers counted as backers of a certain candidate have later told POLITICO they're undecided.
Either way, the GOP conference sees itself with three strong choices.
“There'll be a lot of focus on Emmer because we're in the final couple weeks of the campaign. But Banks has put together a really effective effort,” said one senior House Republican. “So this is a dynamic race.”
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