Donald Trump met his match, again, Wednesday on Capitol Hill: secret ballots.
Despite a boisterous endorsement of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to be the next speaker, Trump’s pick got just 99 votes in the behind-closed-doors vote in a sprawling committee room, less than 45 percent of the GOP caucus.
Instead, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) leveraged his long tenure in multiple leadership positions over the past decade to secure the nomination, winning with a time-honored inside game that was built on personal relationships with lawmakers and not outside endorsements.
Currently the House majority leader, Scalise still faces some doubt that he can unify Republican ranks enough to get the necessary 217 votes, out of 221 eligible GOP votes, when the full House holds its roll call later this week.
Scalise vanquished Jordan despite the Judiciary Committee chair’s higher-profile campaign, beginning with Trump’s “complete” and “total” endorsement Saturday in a social media post.
Jordan released more public endorsements than Scalise going into Wednesday’s secret ballot. A constellation of outside conservative groups — including one whose top strategist is former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, who served four terms in the House — threw its support behind Jordan.
But that outside pressure could not match Scalise’s more than 10-year run of winning leadership races. In 2012 he won the chairmanship of the largest GOP caucus, then won a heavily contested majority whip race in 2014. And for the past five years, he has served in the No. 2 post behind now-deposed speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
“One of the Old Testament things that came to fruition in this speaker’s race was that if you’ve already been in leadership, you’ve probably been traveling the country and helping people get elected to the majority,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a Jordan supporter, lamented after the vote Wednesday. “And so, you know, Mr. Scalise has done a lot of that.”
A similar dynamic played out last November, after the GOP won a narrow House majority and the most heated internal contest formed around the No. 3 post, majority whip. Trump technically remained on the sidelines, but his allies, most prominently his son Donald Trump Jr., lined up vociferously behind Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.).
Eventually Trump Jr. and Tucker Carlson, still a Fox News personality at the time, accused Banks’s leading opponent, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), of spreading bad information about Carlson’s family. Banks, a regular guest on Fox’s prime-time shows, became the Trumpian candidate and won the most votes (82) on the first ballot among three candidates.
But Emmer, who had spent the previous four years as the campaign chief helping build the majority, played the inside game and won, 115-106, on the second ballot.
For veterans of intense GOP leadership fights of the 1990s and early 2000s, these outcomes this year make perfect sense.
“Having outsiders meddle in insider elections never goes well,” said John Feehery, a GOP consultant who served as a leadership aide for 10 years. “And Trump is the ultimate outsider, and, frankly, most members don’t like him very much.”
Trump has far and away more endorsements than any other 2024 Republican presidential contender, but by early September that total represented only about a third of the House GOP caucus. Many of the remaining Congress members would prefer a different nominee but are too afraid of the ex-president’s wrath to get behind another political horse.
To be sure, Jordan made the speaker race unusually competitive, Massie said. “It’s unconventional in that it was a competitive race,” he said. “It wasn’t a coronation.”
It’s been almost 30 years since such a tight battle happened for one of the four top caucus posts — House or Senate, Republican or Democrat. In 1994, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota became Democratic leader by a two-vote margin, in a race that pivoted on the ultimate insider move — handing over a coveted committee assignment to the deciding vote.
McCarthy faced token opposition on the secret ballot last November, defeating Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) by a 188-31 margin. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s toughest of 10 races to lead Democrats came after the 2016 elections, when the California Democrat defeated her internal opponent by a 2-1 margin.
Jordan’s biggest strength was his deeply ideological conservatism in a caucus that has grown much more conservative during his 17 years in the House. But he hasn’t devoted nearly as much time to the interpersonal relationship building like McCarthy and Scalise.
Scalise’s base of support came from Southern delegations, whose ranks make up about 40 percent of the entire caucus. In 2014 he won the majority whip race in part by championing the need to have a Southern voice at the leadership table, at a time when an Ohioan (John A. Boehner) and a Californian (McCarthy) held the top two posts.
Should he win the speaker’s gavel, Scalise will make a bit of history. The only other Southern Republican to become House speaker — Newt Gingrich of Georgia, from 1995 through 1998 — was born in Pennsylvania.
Scalise also had overwhelming support from the three dozen members of the House Appropriations Committee, a panel dominated by traditional Republicans who want government to function. They viewed Jordan, who has led past efforts to shut down the federal government, with deep disdain.
In addition, Jordan has opposed earmarks, those narrow projects members request for their district, while Scalise has supported and secured such projects in recent years.
And Scalise’s allies poured out tons of data about how much political work he has done to benefit other Republican candidates since winning a special House election in 2008:
· Raising nearly $170 million to help Republicans win elections.
· Giving more than $7.2 million directly to Republican incumbents and candidates through his political committees.
· Transferring $50 million from his accounts to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
· And serving as special guest at 171 events for Republicans over 2021 and 2022 — 112 days on the road.
He also touted his small-dollar fundraising operation, with 450,000 unique donors — an area in which Republicans have been thumped by Democrats over the past decade.
None other than Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the rebellion that took McCarthy down last week, has pledged his support to publicly vote for Scalise in the public roll call whenever it’s held.
He said that his Florida Panhandle district shares much in common with Scalise’s Gulf Coast district, so they have worked for years together on similar issues.
Scalise supporters believe other McCarthy holdouts are ready to support him. “The ones I’ve talked to are prepared to rally,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.), chair of the House Budget Committee.
But Massie said the public nature of the slow-rolling, alphabetical roll call on the House floor might give some members pause about voting for Scalise, with outside pressure potentially turning people away.
“I went into this thinking that Jordan has more public support,” Massie said. “Scalise has more private support.”
And, despite Jordan’s call for unity and pledge to deliver Scalise’s nominating speech, a group of hard-line conservatives and some moderates still clamoring for McCarthy’s return have vowed to block Scalise’s elevation.
Arrington acknowledged that Republicans might have to endure another humiliating experience with Scalise losing one or two ballots on the floor, but nothing like the 15 rounds McCarthy had to grind through to get the gavel in January.
“I don’t know that it will go in Round 1, but I do not expect it to go much further,” he said.