California Rep. Kevin McCarthy's apparent grip on the race to become the new House majority leader has set off a contentious battle to replace him as the third-ranking Republican, testing ideological and geographic loyalties as the party's most conservative faction seeks a foothold in the congressional leadership.
As they returned to the Capitol on Tuesday evening, rank-and-file House Republicans faced an intense lobbying campaign ahead of Thursday's secret ballot. Three candidates are seeking the job of majority whip: Illinois' Peter Roskam, currently the chief deputy whip; Steve Scalise of Louisiana; and Indiana's Marlin Stutzman.
The race for the post, which was popularized by Kevin Spacey's character in "House of Cards," has already produced charges of improper deal-making and revived simmering tensions within the party about which tactics will advance Republican goals.
The speed of the election schedule set by party leaders last week after Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost the Virginia primary to a conservative challenger boosted McCarthy's chances of moving up the ladder. His most viable potential foes passed on the opportunity to challenge the well-liked Bakersfield congressman.
Conservative forces quickly turned to the whip's race as the bigger opportunity to shake up the party leadership. Scalise, who serves as chairman of an organized group of House conservatives, quickly emerged as the more formidable challenger to Roskam, who has served as McCarthy's chief deputy for the last two congressional terms.
Although the race involves ideological issues and the divide between the Republicans' establishment wing and its conservative base, fights over congressional leadership posts can often turn on issues that have little to do with policy challenges. Friendships, committee ties and, in some cases, personal ambition all figure into how members decide to vote.
After a weekend of working colleagues by phone, all three candidates were scheduling one-on-one meetings and relying on allies to bolster their appeals.
"We're seeing a lot of undecideds break these last few days, and frankly a lot of them have been breaking our way," Scalise told reporters.
"I'm very encouraged," Roskam said. "I think our conference is poised to make some very good decisions."
Scalise's camp has been more publicly bullish, saying he already has more than 100 votes committed to him of the 117 needed to ensure victory. Roskam aides put his committed total in the 90s as of Tuesday afternoon, but said they were aggressively courting all members for the second round of balloting that would be required if no candidate won an outright majority.
Stutzman is seen as a potential spoiler who could siphon votes from both parties, and Roskam's team in particular has pushed to seek second-round commitments from his supporters.
"I'm feeling strong on a first-ballot strategy, on a second-ballot strategy," Roskam said.
Scalise and Roskam made personal appeals Tuesday night to a closed-door meeting of Pennsylvania's Republican delegation, seen as a potentially decisive force should its members decide to vote as a bloc.
Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), a former member of the House, said he was working to unite the Illinois delegation on Roskam's behalf, arguing that having him in a senior leadership position helps the state.
"The secret to winning is that your candidacy has to be perceived as in the self-interest of your members," Kirk said. "It's very prime ministerial. If people have seen in the past that you have been helpful to their reelection, and you advocate policies which are going to be helpful to their reelection, it's been key."
Kirk's backing could be a mixed blessing for Roskam, however, because the senator is among the handful of relative moderates in the chamber who sometimes work with Democrats.
"Roskam might as well have Dick Durbin whipping votes for him," said a Republican close to the Illinois delegation, speaking anonymously to discuss internal politics and referring to the state's Democratic senior senator.
Working against Roskam is the fact that no member of the existing leadership team represents a state that Mitt Romney carried in the last presidential election. House Speaker John A. Boehner is from the swing state of Ohio, while McCarthy, GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Roskam all hail from Republican districts in heavily Democratic states.
In his letter to colleagues, Roskam confronted the desire to diversify the leadership ranks.
"At this tumultuous time for our conference, I think it is more important to have the skills necessary to line up votes than to check a geographical box," he wrote. "We can and should ensure the broadest possible voices in the conference are heard and get the best candidate with the best abilities."
Still, he pledged that he would appoint as chief deputy someone from a red state.
Scalise, after addressing the Pennsylvania Republicans, said he had shown as chairman of the House's Republican Study Committee that he had "worked hard to bring conservative policy to the floor in a way that unites our conference and shown that you can actually bridge some of the divide that we've seen over the years."
The whip race will be decided Thursday afternoon immediately after the vote for majority leader. The actual leadership transition won't occur until late July.