The Ohio Republican maintains that he has no plans to relinquish the gavel. Indeed, some Republicans close to Boehner now believe he is leaning toward running for a third term as speaker after previously predicting that 2014 would be his final year on the job. Boehner's speakership has strengthened in the aftermath of October's government shutdown, with his often-rebellious conference uniting behind him following three years of bucking his leadership at nearly every turn.
But there remains considerable speculation that Boehner will retire, and members interested in moving up are quietly exploring their options and laying the foundation for a leadership bid. They include members of Boehner’s team who are eyeing promotions and rank-and-file Republicans looking to win their first elected position in conference leadership. Overt campaigning, considered unseemly and counterproductive at this early stage, could accelerate over the summer.
“There is definitely a lot of shadow campaigning going on,” said a Republican lobbyist with relationships on Capitol Hill. “They all want to be ready.”
The politics of running for a congressional leadership post differ from campaigns for public office. In a leadership election, members are the constituency, and winning is primarily about relationships, favors and fundraising. In other words, members with friends, who have helped boost colleagues’ legislation and campaign coffers, tend to have an edge. That a member might enjoy the support of party activists or influential outside groups usually matters much less.
That is one reason why Boehner's team has been remarkably stable despite the challenges it has faced periodically in rounding up the 218 votes required to pass legislation. Members of the House Republican conference who are loyal to the Tea Party have been disenchanted with Boehner's strategy occasionally, but none has accumulated the breadth of support required to oust him or one of his lieutenants.
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is probably the only member capable of uniting Establishment and Tea Party Republicans and ousting Boehner or another senior leader. But Ryan isn't interested, both because he is closely aligned with Boehner, as well as Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, and because he doesn't want their jobs. Ryan is poised to become Ways and Means Committee chairman next year, fulfilling a career ambition.
“The only person who can tell Boehner it’s time to go is Cantor,” said a former House Republican leadership aide. “Ryan isn’t going to do it.”
Congressional leadership elections will be held after the 2014 midterms and decided by the members who will serve in the 114th Congress that convenes in January. Retiring members will not have a vote. Here are three scenarios for how the House GOP leadership elections could shake out, assuming the party holds its majority on Nov. 5, as analysts predict is likely:
• Boehner stays: Boehner's decision could hinge on whether Republicans win the Senate. Some GOP insiders believe that Boehner will not be able to resist the opportunity to govern in tandem with a Republican Senate to force President Obama's hand after four frustrating years of playing prevent defense against the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
“If we win the Senate … I think there’s a good shot that he stays,” a Republican member told the Washington Examiner.
If Boehner stays and isn’t challenged, the senior team of Cantor, McCarthy, Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam of Illinois and Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington would likely remain intact. If there is a senior leader vulnerable to a challenge, it could be McCarthy. But he currently has no obvious challenger, and one supporter said the Californian has solidified his position over the past year.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., and Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, are ambitious and had been considered potential challengers to one of the senior leaders. But GOP sources say Hensarling is happy with his committee chairmanship and that Price will be satisfied with becoming Budget Committee chairman, as he is in line to do next year when Ryan moves to Ways and Means.
• Boehner goes: Cantor would be considered a shoo-in to be elected speaker. The majority leader has relationships with key members of the House Republicans’ Tea Party and Establishment wings. Significantly, these factions are divided along generational lines. Party insiders are split on whether the rest of the senior leadership team follows Cantor up the ladder. Some predict that would be likely, with McCarthy becoming majority leader and Roskam becoming the whip — a position he covets.
But some believe that at least one senior leader is likely to have his or her ascension blocked. Republican sources say ambitious outsiders could seize on the opportunity after almost eight years of stasis at the top of the GOP ranks — Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy will have served in the top three leadership positions for eight years — and run for majority leader, whip or conference chairman. Contested races for all three positions could ensue.
A change also could be driven by Cantor to placate conservatives, and partially because there are currently no senior members of leadership who hail from solid red or southern states. Boehner and Cantor are from swing states; McCarthy, Roskam and McMorris Rogers hail from blue states. To rectify this, some Republicans believe that Cantor would support Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, for majority whip.
• Boehner is challenged: Most Republicans consider this scenario unlikely. They argue that Boehner has too many chits he can collect after 22 years in Congress, and that Cantor, cautious by nature, would be unlikely to challenge the speaker, particularly if Republicans have just won the Senate and are preparing to battle Obama. Some also question whether Cantor’s support among the conservatives elected in 2010 and 2012 has waned as he has become more identified with the Establishment.
But sources say Cantor’s supporters are urging him to prepare to take the gavel from Boehner by political force if necessary. Cantor would probably not confront Boehner directly. Rather, the Virginian’s backers would reach out to House conservatives and other Cantor acolytes who they believe would support him if he were ready to move against Boehner.
Sources believe that once it became clear to Boehner that he didn’t have 218 votes for speaker, he would step down voluntarily to avoid an embarrassing rebuke.
“There are people close to Cantor who believe it’s his time and that he needs to take it,” one GOP operative said.