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House Republicans' Top Leadership Gets A Red-State Member

Newly elected House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana (left) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California speak to the media following the House Republican leadership elections on Thursday.
Kevin Dietsch
Newly elected House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana (left) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California speak to the media following the House Republican leadership elections on Thursday.

House Republicans, whose voter strength can be disproportionately found in the red states of the South and Mountain West, have once again elected a majority leader from a state that voted twice for President Obama. But the race for majority whip was won by a red-state representative who made the case for regional diversity in Republican leadership.

Hailing from California, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy replaces Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, whose surprising primary loss to a political newcomer set the stage for Thursday's leadership elections.

McCarthy's victory, making him the second in command in House leadership after Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (a state that also voted twice for the president), was expected. Now in his fourth House term, McCarthy had previously served as House majority whip, the third-ranking position.

In that role, McCarthy was the chief vote chaser for the House GOP leadership. As such, he came to know all the members of the GOP conference, more or less, and had a big head start on his competitor for the majority leader's position, Rep. Raul Labrador, a Tea Party favorite from the very red state of Idaho.

Labrador, only in his second term and a banner-carrier for the House's hardest-line conservatives (he has a 97.28 percent American Conservative Union lifetime rating), didn't have McCarthy's connections among House Republicans. McCarthy, by the way, has a 90.43 percent lifetime ACU rating.

Because McCarthy's election was a foregone conclusion, the only excitement in that two-man race was the question of how much support Labrador would have. A higher count would show the strength of the House's conservative hard-liners. But House Republicans didn't release the vote tallies of the secret ballot.

Much of the excitement in the broader leadership race came from the contest over the third-ranking House Republican position, which belonged to McCarthy before his ascendance. That three-way competition pitted front-runner and winner Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana — chairman of the Republican Study Committee, keeper of conservative orthodoxy in the House — against Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, the deputy whip; and Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana.

It was in this race that the dominance of Republicans from blue states became a major issue. Scalise and other House Republicans from red states argued that it was time for states like theirs that were among the most reliably anti-Obama to have a place in the House leadership.

John Feehery, who was a senior aide to onetime Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, said that House leadership historically has had regional diversity and that the representation until Thursday was anomalous.

"Usually in a successful leadership you have regional balance," Feehery, president of Quinn Gillespie Communications, told It's All Politics. "When Democrats had the stranglehold on Congress for 50 years, it was the Boston-Austin agreement, where you had liberals from the Northeast and folks from either Texas or Oklahoma being either 1 or 2 in the leadership of the Democratic Party.

"It's been interesting that there has been no red-state representation. You could make the case that Virginia has been a red state, but it really hasn't been," he adds. "They went twice for Obama. The case that Scalise is making about winning some red-state representation is a good case to make."

What the leadership changes mean for the possibility of major issues in the future, like an immigration overhaul, was unclear. McCarthy has a large Latino population in his district and is considered to be open to the idea of revising immigration laws in a way that would lead to legal status for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

But there is clearly strong pressure within the Republican base against that. Longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie said in a statement:

"There was good news and bad news in this afternoon's House Republican leadership elections. ... The good news was that all of the candidates running for House Majority Leader and Majority Whip claimed to be conservatives. The bad news is that the two winning candidates (McCarthy and Scalise) are business-as-usual, go-along-to-get-along Washington insiders."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.