9 min read

A guide to the speaker candidates

The speaker’s race has become a free-for-all, with eight candidates in the running. But do any of them have the gravitas to run the House?
A guide to the speaker candidates
The House speaker’s chair has sat empty for three weeks now. (U.S. House)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, October 24, 2023. The 2024 elections are 378 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

As this is being sent out, House Republicans are gathering behind closed doors to nominate their next candidate for speaker.

For those keeping track at home, this will be the House GOP’s fourth speaker nominee in just 10 months. The party’s three most logical options — two from leadership (Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise) and one from the conservative faction (Jim Jordan) — have all proven unable to cobble together 217-vote majorities to win the job.

With McCarthy, Scalise, and Jordan out of the way, an eight-candidate free-for-all has emerged to take their place. (A ninth candidate, Dan Meuser, dropped out last night.) Here’s a quick guide to the new crop of contenders:

  • Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN) currently serves as House Majority Whip, the GOP’s top-vote counter. Sitting next in line in the leadership hierarchy, he is widely seen as the frontrunner for the GOP nod. He also chaired the House GOP campaign arm for the last two cycles, meaning he has fundraising experience and favors to call in from across the conference. But a big problem lurks: Trump allies are determined to sink him, convinced that he hasn’t been sufficiently supportive of the former president.
  • Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK) chairs the Republican Study Committee, the largest faction of conservatives within the House GOP. A former McDonald’s franchisee — who has been giving out cheeseburgers to campaign — he is the 20th most-wealthy member of Congress, with a net worth above $26 million.
  • Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) is a former Study Committee chair (like Scalise and Jordan) who has worked his way into leadership as Republican conference vice chair. If Johnson is elected speaker, the House GOP’s top two leaders would both hail from Louisiana, the home state he shares with Scalise.
  • Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) is the candidate with the least congressional experience: he is currently in his second House term, having been elected for the first time in 2020. But in his short tenure, he has become a popular member of the GOP’s right-wing faction, even fetching votes for speaker during the McCarthy balloting in January. He is the only Freedom Caucus member in the speaker’s race.
  • Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) won a surprising 81 votes last week when running against Jordan for the speaker’s nomination. But that was in a one-on-one race, when Scott was the only option for anyone against Jordan to register their opposition. In today’s more crowded field, he is not expected to perform as well.
  • Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) is a mainstay of the House GOP, having first been elected to Congress in 1996. Throughout his tenure — the longest of any candidate — Sessions has chaired both the powerful House Rules Committee and the House GOP campaign operation. But he has been out of leadership since 2010; it is unclear whether he can recapture his former glory.
  • Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) surprised some observers with his late entry into the race. He holds a lower-profile leadership position, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, sitting fifth on the House GOP totem pole.
  • Rep. Jack Bergman (R-MI) is the oldest candidate in the race, at age 76. He joined Congress in 2017 after a 40-year career in the Marine Corps, retiring with the rank of lieutenant general. According to his office, he is the highest-ranking combat veteran ever to serve in the House.

Some more quick facts: All eight candidates are men. Only one (Donalds) is not white. Two (Emmer and Scott) voted to certify the 2020 election. Four (Emmer, Johnson, Scott, Bergman) voted to avert the debt ceiling earlier this year.

A different group of four (Emmer, Scott, Sessions, Bergman) voted to avert a government shutdown last month; they are also the only contenders to support the most recent Ukraine aid package.

Emmer is the lone contender who voted to codify same-sex marriage last year. All nine are members of the Republican Study Committee. Most of them (Emmer, Hern, Johnson, Scott, Palmer, Bergman) were first elected in the 2010s; Sessions was elected in the 1990s, while Donalds was elected in the 2020s.

Here’s how today’s election will work: Per conference rules, a speaker candidate must receive the support of a majority of House Republicans in order to win the nomination.

If no one crosses that threshold on the first round (as is expected), multiple rounds of voting will be held. At the end of each round, the candidate with the lowest number of voters in that round will be eliminated and voting will continue with all other candidates. Candidates may also drop out between rounds, accelerating the process.

It would be difficult to overstate how ready House Republicans are to move past this three-week ordeal.

And yet, there is also a lot of skepticism around this crop of eight, few of whom have significant legislative or leadership experience. The House speaker is expected to serve a lot of roles at once: vote-counter, negotiator, wrangler, policy architect procedural wizard, fundraising juggernaut, campaign surrogate (and, often, bogeyman), and second in the presidential line of succession.

Now that the House GOP’s three most recognizable names have been eliminated, it’s unclear whether any of these eight lower-profile lawmakers have the gravitas to hash out a spending deal with the president or lead the House GOP to victory next November.

Remember: Government funding is set to run out on November 17, less than a month from now. The new House speaker will have to negotiate a deal with the White House and congressional Democrats, while also ensuring it can pass the House. Two major U.S. allies are also at war, waiting for aid requests to be fulfilled.

Emmer is probably the candidate who comes closest to having filled all the aforementioned job requirements — but he is also potentially the candidate who would have the most trouble putting together a 217-vote majority on the floor, due to the animus from Trumpworld. (The former president’s allies object to Emmer’s vote certifying the 2020 election and his lack of a 2024 endorsement for Trump, among other points of contention.)

According to Punchbowl News, though, House Democratic leaders have privately expressed openness to helping Emmer get to a majority of the full House by sitting out the floor vote if he’s the nominee, lowering the amount of votes he’d need to win. One Democratic lawmaker, Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, has publicly said he would sit out the vote in order to help Emmer across the finish line.

If you scroll above, you’ll see that Emmer is the only contender who fell on the more moderate side of all the recent key votes, from aiding Ukraine to funding the government, explaining Democrats’ openness to help him (although that reporting will hardly do him any favors trying to get the GOP nomination today).

Following up.

ICYMI: Here’s a link to my piece yesterday, in which I wrote about how the GOP’s recent use of non-binding “unity pledges” underlines the party’s lack of actual unity — and its focus more on personalities than any sort of uniting policy agenda.

The New York Times wrote about some of the same themes yesterday. Here are the key grafs:

As national Democrats largely stand behind President Biden and his agenda — more united than in years — Republicans are divided, directionless and effectively leaderless.
For years, Mr. Trump has domineered Republican politics, with a reach that could end careers, create new political stars and upend the party’s long-held ideology on issues like trade, China and federal spending. He remains the party’s nominal leader, capturing a majority of G.O.P. voters in national polling and holding a double-digit lead in early voting states.
And yet his commanding position has turned Republicans into a party of one, demanding absolute loyalty to Mr. Trump and his personal feuds and pet causes, such as his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The result is an endless loop of chaos that even some Republicans say once again threatens to define the party’s brand heading into an election in which Republicans — after struggling to meet the basic responsibilities of governing the House of Representatives — will ask voters to also put them in charge of the Senate and the White House.

Here’s a free link to the full Times piece.

The latest from Israel/Gaza.

Biden administration officials are reportedly growing concerned about Israel’s expected ground invasion of Gaza. According to the New York Times, U.S. officials are worried that “Israel lacks achievable military objectives in Gaza, and that the Israel Defense Forces are not yet ready to launch a ground invasion with a plan that can work.” The U.S. has sent a three-star Marine Corps general to advise the country on its plans.

The U.S. has also been pushing for Israel to wait until negotiations can progress over the 200+ hostages still held by Hamas after the group’s October 7 attack on Israel. Two elderly Israeli hostages were released on Monday, following the release of two American captives last week.

Meanwhile, worries persist about a broader war breaking out in the Middle East; Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militants have already begun trading fire along the Israel-Lebanon border. Per CNN, the U.S. has intelligence that Iranian-backed milita groups — of which Hezbollah is one — are “planning to ramp up attacks against U.S. forces in the Middle East.”

The U.S. is shifting thousands of military personnel across the globe to prepare for possible deployment, while also planning for the possibility that hundreds of thousands of American citizens living in the Middle East will need to be evacuated.

Here in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has endorsed President Biden’s plan to couple together aid for Israel and Ukraine. But McConnell’s grip on the Senate GOP is no longer as tight as it once was, a trend that has been clear for months now. Several Senate conservatives have come out against the plan, including Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rick Scott (R-FL), and J.D. Vance (R-OH).

It also remains unclear what impact the war will have on the 2024 election. Some Muslim voters in Michigan told NBC News that they are reconsidering their support for Biden amid his strong support of Israel, while The Forward reported that Orthodox Jews have been pleasantly surprised by the president’s stance.

More news to know.

Trump muddles up Turkish and Hungarian leaders / Politico

If Trump Trial Isn’t Broadcast Live, a Plea to Record It for Posterity / NYT

Former GOP presidential candidate Perry Johnson endorses Trump / The Hill

China ousts missing defense minister in new leadership shakeup / NBC

Sweden closer to NATO membership after Erdogan sends accession protocol to Turkish parliament / CNN

US renews warning it will defend Philippines after incidents with Chinese vessels in South China Sea / AP

Drugstore closures are leaving millions without easy access to a pharmacy / WaPo

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will award the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation this morning. Later, he will welcome Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to the White House ahead of a state visit tomorrow.

Senate: The upper chamber will hold a procedural vote to advance Michael Whitaker’s nomination to be head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Biden’s previous choice for the post withdrew after bipartisan criticism.

House: The lower chamber is set to gavel in at 11 a.m. ET. Theoretically, the chamber could elect a new speaker today if Republicans rally behind a nominee during their conference meeting.

Courts: Michael Cohen, Trump’s “fixer” turned critic, is set to testify at his civil fraud trial in New York today.

Before I go...

Here’s something to chew over: “What is the name of the Speaker of the House of Representatives now?” is one of the questions on the U.S. citizenship test.

Of course, right now, there is no correct answer to that question. Here are the three answers that are currently being accepted, per U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:

“We do not have one.” Quite a message to send to those hoping to join our country.

(h/t @umichvoter)

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