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Crashing the House Party

Shadegg is gaining steam, but it's still Blunt's race to lose.

8:45 PM, Jan 19, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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FORGET MAGAZINES AND EDITORIAL PAGES. The only endorsements that really matter in the GOP House leadership contest are those from the members themselves, especially the members with clout. Two such Republicans are Jim Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Mike Pence, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), both of whom endorsed Arizona congressman John Shadegg this week. Shadegg, an erstwhile chief of both the RSC and (more recently) the Republican Policy Committee, remains a dark horse--but he's gaining steam. "The 'Big Mo' is on our side," says one pro-Shadegg Republican.

The timing of Pence's public support came as a surprise. He'd initially planned on waiting until after the RSC's January 30-31 retreat to make an endorsement. As late as Tuesday afternoon Pence affirmed that position, though he told me Shadegg was "a true believer in the conservative cause" and that he "heartily welcomed" his candidacy. There was never any doubt that Pence would back Shadegg; but his decision to expedite the official endorsement speaks to a keen interest in the race. "I think this really matters," Pence told me on Tuesday. "I think it's really serious."

The one-two punch of Pence and Sensenbrenner will surely boost Shadegg among House conservatives and reformers. But the frontrunner is still Missouri's Roy Blunt, who, as Tom DeLay's former whip and now the acting House majority leader, is the de facto "incumbent." Even after Shadegg entered the race late last week, Blunt claimed he had the support of a majority of Republicans. "I like Shadegg a lot," says one pro-Blunt GOP staffer, "but he's definitely the third guy." Shadegg's bid, predicts this staffer, "hurts [Ohio's John] Boehner more than it does Blunt." Translation: It's still Blunt's race to lose.

Boehner, a former chairman of the House Republican Conference, had posed as the true "reformer" in the mix: the fresh face needed to revamp the GOP's dodgy public image and clean up earmarks, the budget process, and more. He was a veteran of the so-called Gang of Seven--the group of freshman Republicans who aggressively probed the House banking scandal in the early 1990s. And Boehner had never voted for a federal highway bill, his office boasted, while Blunt was a well-known champion of earmarks.

The strategy didn't quite work. Boehner's own close ties to the lobbying community made it tricky for him to assail Blunt over earmarks and pork. Whether unfairly or not, he was lumped in with Blunt as a "K Street Republican."

Blunt, however, is closely associated with Tom DeLay, while Boehner isn't. Press coverage of the race has invariably cast DeLay as an albatross. But the reality is a bit more complex. As GOP staffers and congressmen point out, there are actually two Tom DeLays. The first Tom DeLay is the longtime chum of Jack Abramoff; the scandal-tainted lightning rod; the machine-oriented pol who dependably brings home the bacon but has become perhaps too comfortable with big government and the K Street culture. Blunt's connection with this Tom DeLay does him no favors.

But there's a second Tom DeLay, whom many Republicans still respect: the proud ideological conservative; the bête noire of liberals; the most efficient conservative legislator in decades; the leader who--despite being a right-wing prince--successfully managed a big-tent party and rode herd on GOP moderates. Blunt's association with this Tom DeLay is a positive. DeLay "is still held in high regard" by a majority of the Republican caucus, says one GOP House aide. "They understand what an effective leader Mr. DeLay has been."

As the pro-Shadegg Republican puts it, DeLay is that rarest of species: He's both a "cause guy"--a fervent conservative--and a "K Street guy." Here's the trouble for Blunt: Although his voting record is roughly in sync with DeLay's--and Boehner's, and Shadegg's--Blunt is not viewed by movement conservatives as a member of the tribe. He may be conservative, but he's not a vocal ideological combatant like DeLay. This adds to the perception that Blunt is a "K Street guy" but not a "cause guy."

He's working to fix that. According to various GOP Hill sources, Blunt has promised that, should he be elected as permanent majority leader, "real reforms are coming" on lobbying, appropriations, et al. Still, the pro-Shadegg forces are trying their hardest to cast the race as one of change versus the status quo.

The magic number in the February 2 election is 116. That's how many votes--a majority of the 231 House Republicans--a candidate needs to win. Blunt publicly lists over 80 supporters but insists he has the private backing of more than 116. According to Republican sources, there is a good deal of crossover among the names on Blunt's list, Boehner's list, and Shadegg's list. The pro-Shadegg Republican guesses that "40 or so" of Blunt's publicly declared votes are "fear-and-intimidation votes"--from members worried about retribution should Blunt lose the leader's race but keep his post as majority whip.

That may be wishful thinking. Either way, should Blunt win a plurality but not a clear majority of first-ballot votes, the election would go to a runoff pitting Blunt head to head with the second-place finisher. If that turns out to be Shadegg, expect lots of previously pro-Boehner Republicans to back Shadegg over Blunt. Indeed, in a Shadegg-Blunt runoff, the margin of victory could be razor-thin. (There is also the slim possibility that, should Shadegg continue to rack up endorsements, Boehner could bow out of the contest before the first ballot.)

A final point. While each candidate has been jockeying for maximum credibility among conservatives, the race might ultimately hinge on the two dozen or so Republican moderates. The conventional wisdom says these members will gravitate mainly to Blunt and Boehner. (Some already have, such as Connecticut's Chris Shays, who endorsed Blunt, and Delaware's Mike Castle, who endorsed Boehner.) But Shadegg beefed up his own moderate appeal last year by spearheading a series of "unity dinners" among Republicans to discuss immigration. These events brought together GOP House members from all sides of the debate--everyone from Colorado's Tom Tancredo to Arizona's Jim Kolbe.

The unity dinners may have seemed a good idea to Shadegg at the time. In retrospect, they're looking even better.

Duncan Currie is a reporter at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.