The new House majority whip won not only because he was a conservative, but also because he reached out to other elements of the Republican Party.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., won in part because of political atmospherics. Electing him satisfied a strong demand for change at the top and a more conservative, red-state voice in senior leadership.
But he also ran a smart campaign, moving more quickly and with more precision than his opponents and assembling a larger and more diverse “whip team” of supporters that was able to carry his campaign to members in all corners of the GOP conference.
“Running an excellent campaign mattered. This was exquisite execution,” said a House Republican who whipped for Scalise.
Once it was clear on the evening of June 10 that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had lost his Virginia primary, and that current majority whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, would run to succeed him, Scalise sprung into action. He had been preparing to run for majority whip in November, when the next regularly scheduled leadership elections will be held, and activated a handful of supporters he had assembled for that campaign.
Within 24 hours, Scalise had a whip team of 25 “solid” supporters, said a Republican aide whose boss voted for the Louisianan.
In the nine-day sprint of a campaign, this gave Scalise a crucial advantage over Majority Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Illinois, and late entry third candidate, Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana. His whip team, which grew over time, was comprised of members from across the conference: committee chairman, conservative stalwarts, women, non-southerners and others. They gathered intelligence quickly and had a friendly face to make the pitch, regardless of the member being targeted.
Along with his whips, Scalise held conversations in person, by telephone and on the House floor with virtually every member of the conference whose vote was thought to be available. By the time Roskam and Stutzman began reaching out to members in earnest, some of them had already committed to Scalise. This legwork helped Scalise capitalize on the “Southern sentiment” that sources close to his operation believe was “very real” and fueled his win.
In other words, the bloc of Southerners that makes up a large part of the Republican majority wanted representation in senior leadership — the current team is comprised of members from blue and swing states. Others like Scalise because he is not doctrinaire and understands that not all districts are as red as his. Rep. Tom Cole, who whipped for him, said the internal whip count heading into the vote showed Scalise winning on the first ballot.
“There was desire for some level of change; there was a desire for geographical and ideological diversity at the table and No. 3 I think people were really impressed with the job that Steve had done as RSC chairman,” the Oklahoma Republican said, following the vote. “One member told me — he said, ‘I got calls from all the candidates and they were great, but I also got calls from about 23 other people from Steve Scalise.' ”
The vote is conducted by secret ballot. To win, a candidate must secure a majority.
Since 2008, House Republicans stopped releasing the vote tallies for leadership elections. Only the three members tapped to count the votes see the ballots and know the margins. The ballots are shredded immediately following the elections. Scalise takes over as majority whip on July 31, when Cantor steps down as majority leader and McCarthy moves up. Scalise is expected to appoint a new chief deputy whip.