As House Republicans jockey early over a majority whip’s post before even winning back the chamber, Kevin McCarthy is warning contenders that an early play for the role could “backfire.”
With the GOP poised to take back the House in the fall, the field is already looking crowded for the rare opening at No. 3 leader next Congress. Among the Republicans already laying the groundwork for a whip bid, Rep. Drew Ferguson of Georgia is the only one openly seeking backers — and he’s already gotten a public support signal from the current whip, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).
But the undisputed and uncontested frontrunner for speaker next year indicated he has a different perspective on such behind-the-scenes efforts.
“I think that would backfire on people, if they try to run for something that is not there yet,” the House minority leader told POLITICO. McCarthy didn't speak specifically about Ferguson, currently the GOP deputy whip, but took a subtle jab when asked about the only whip contender actively seeking backers: “I think what people want to see is people who are doing their job.”
Vying privately for a leadership role before a midterm election amounts to the trickiest of tightrope walks in Congress. Members of both parties often do try to make early noise about leadership bids in private, but the appearance of premature campaigning — if too overt — risks attracting scrutiny or even blowback from colleagues.
“Look, I'm a former whip. And that job opened up after we won the election,” McCarthy recalled. “And I think one of the reasons why I was able to win the job as whip, only in my third term, was because we focused on winning the majority. And I think that is a greater attribute that people would look at.”
Scalise offered a different view, citing various members who are “already having conversations with people about what they would go for” if Republicans win the majority this fall, as polling and historical trends indicate is highly likely. The Louisianan summed up his view as all about priorities: Winning the majority has to be the top of the list.
When asked about Ferguson, Scalise cited his ally's fundraising and travel on behalf of House Republicans before adding that “the people that are putting in the work to help us win the majority are what our members are most concerned about. Drew's been one of those leaders helping work hard to get us in the majority — so that we can then worry about who's going to have which titles.”
Scalise declined to say whether he’s supporting Ferguson for whip in the next Congress, noting that he’s going to wait until after the election to make a “determination.” But many House Republicans have read a series of recent developments as Scalise all but publicly throwing his support behind his chief deputy for the role.
Those moves include Ferguson hiring on two key staffers from Scalise’s office, which coincided with the Georgian taking over sending vote wrap-up emails to the conference that Scalise’s office previously handled. POLITICO first reported that Ferguson was the only candidate in the race asking colleagues for their support, including hosting dinners where he has laid out his vision for the role.
Ferguson, for his part, echoed Scalise that the conference's key focus is winning the majority.
“We’re going to stay focused on putting candidates and members in the best possible position to win so that we can have the largest majority possible going into the next session,” said Ferguson. “That is the prize that we're fighting for. And we don't take our eyes off the prize.”
Meanwhile, some House GOP hands recall that McCarthy and Scalise both followed a similar playbook to Ferguson's. One former senior leadership aide, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, said the current GOP leader and whip both positioned themselves before Election Day while running for whip.
“There is precedent for what Drew is doing,” the aide added.
But behind the scenes, Ferguson already has formidable potential competition.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the Republican Study Committee, is having exploratory conversations with members about the potential of jumping into the race. Asked if he is running for the whip role, Banks replied: “Right now, we ought to be focused on winning back the majority and I'll be looking at where I fit in.”
National Republican Committee Chair Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) is also viewed as a likely candidate for whip after a GOP takeover, even though he has not started to have such conversations. Doing so would break from the core message the House GOP’s campaign chief sent to members: that their attention should stay on winning in November.
And Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the current conference chair, could still pursue the whip's spot, though it's unclear whether she has redirected her future ambitions to another senior position. Despite some colleagues previously seeing signs of her gearing up for a run for the No. 3 role, the Washington Examiner has reported that she's preparing to step back from a whip run.
Other Republicans now forecast a return to her earlier interest in the Education and Labor Committee chairmanship, which would keep Stefanik's options open if a top contender stumbles after the midterms in other higher-ranked leadership races.
Stefanik’s office has repeatedly dismissed questions about her future ambitions, saying she is solely focused on her role as the House GOP messaging chief.
Broadly speaking, the dynamics of the whip race changed significantly after Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) announced earlier this year that he plans not to seek the role in the next Congress, choosing to instead remain on the Financial Services Committee. And despite McCarthy's views on early campaigning, Ferguson and potentially Banks will be able to spend months building support in the leadup to the election while Emmer will be hamstrung by November.
But if the two-term NRCC chair can take credit for a sizable majority heading into the new Congress, he could earn a heap of member goodwill and cash in with a run.
That would mark a turnabout from 2010, when then-NRCC chair Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) was interested in becoming whip after leading Republicans back into the majority but ended up losing to McCarthy — who had started campaigning earlier.
Sessions said he recalled McCarthy asking members for support, an easier feat for the Californian since, unlike Sessions, he wasn't hamstrung by a different leadership position at the time.
“I needed to keep my focus instead of asking people, which puts them in a difficult position. So I chose to wait,” Sessions recalled.
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