Scalise, Jordan Emphasize Republican Unity in Speaker’s Race

Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan. (Photo of Scalise by John Lamparski/Getty Images. Photo of Jordan by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images.)

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Up to Speed

  • As he struggles to regain momentum in the polls, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has begun laying into frontrunner Donald Trump in his most direct terms yet. “I don’t think anybody voted for Biden,” he said at a Thursday event in Tampa, Florida. “They were voting against Trump! That was why they did it. … You could have John Kennedy walk through the door right now and he wouldn’t energize Democrats as much as Donald Trump does.”
  • The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday announced it would allow new border wall construction in a “high illegal entry” area of Starr County, Texas, waiving a number of federal laws regulating new construction to do so expeditiously. “There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States in the project areas,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in the notice.
  • The notice came as a surprise thanks to the Biden administration’s previous longtime dismissal of the importance of a physical border at the barrier. On Thursday, President Joe Biden said again that he thinks walls don’t work, but insisted that his hands were tied: Congress had appropriated the money for the construction in 2019. In a statement of his own, Mayorkas wrote that “the language in the Federal Register notice is being taken out of context” and that it “does not signify any change in policy whatsoever.”
  • Hunter Biden pleaded not guilty this week to three federal gun charges stemming from false statements he made while filling out an application to buy a gun in late 2018. On the application, Biden testified he was not a drug user; in fact, as he has publicly acknowledged, he was addicted to crack cocaine and alcohol at the time.

Speaker Race Shaping Up as Scalise vs. Jordan

The ouster of Kevin McCarthy as speaker brought the work of the House of Representatives screeching to a halt, and Republicans are wasting no time looking for a new one. Ahead of a conference candidate forum scheduled for Monday, two frontrunners for the job have emerged: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio.

As the highest-ranking House Republican since McCarthy’s ouster, Scalise makes for an obvious potential replacement. He officially threw his hat in the ring Wednesday with a public letter to his colleagues spotlighting his “proven track record of bringing together the diverse array of viewpoints within our Conference to build consensus where others thought it impossible.”

Jordan, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus and ferocious ally of former President Donald Trump, announced his own intentions with a Wednesday letter of his own: “We can focus on the changes that improve the country and unite us in offering real solutions. But no matter what we do, we must do it together as a conference.”

There’s a reason unity is the heart of each lawmaker’s pitch. Lowering the temperature in the shell-shocked Republican conference, which is furious and mortified over this week’s meltdown, won’t be an easy task—but it’s a necessary one if the GOP hopes to maintain any sort of legislative check on Joe Biden and Democrats in the Senate.

The inside track arguably belongs to Scalise, who already has nearly a decade of House leadership experience under his belt, including winning a particularly competitive race for Republican whip in 2014. As the House GOP’s chief vote enforcer for nine years until his election as majority leader this year, Scalise has plenty of experience working to unite his conference. And as a more staunch conservative than McCarthy, his allies tell The Dispatch, he’ll be less likely to draw the slings and arrows of the chaos agents who marooned the last guy. So far, he’s conducted his campaign quietly, drawing on his deep well of individual relationships across the various House GOP factions to cobble together a coalition.

But Scalise’s health is also a concern: He announced in August that he had been diagnosed with a rare blood cancer, although his treatment so far has reportedly been promising. (He was also, of course, the most prominent shooting victim of the 2017 congressional baseball shooting, where he was shot and gravely wounded in the hip.)

Jordan, meanwhile, makes for a seemingly unlikely speaker candidate: While he’s served in Congress longer than Scalise himself, he spent most of that time as a thorn in leadership’s side. But after lobbying hard in support of McCarthy’s speaker bid, Jordan was rewarded with the chair of the powerful Judiciary Committee and has spent the last nine months positioning himself as McCarthy’s ambassador to his insurgent right flank.

The Ohio congressman has taken some wildly controversial stances in recent years—most notably in the wake of the 2020 election, when he made himself the congressional face of Donald Trump’s false claims that the election had been fraudulently stolen by Joe Biden. That position—suffice to say—is not widely held by the conference.

But it also seems to have won him one very important ally: Trump himself. After several days of publicly flirting with the possibility of putting his own name in for speaker, Trump has officially endorsed Jordan for speaker. “Congressman Jim Jordan has been a STAR long before making his very successful journey to Washington, D.C., representing Ohio’s 4th Congressional District,’ Trump wrote on his social networking site Truth Social. “He is STRONG on Crime, Borders, our Military/Vets, & 2nd Amendment. Jim, his wife, Polly, & family are outstanding – He will be a GREAT Speaker of the House, & has my Complete & Total Endorsement!”

Several lawmakers, including Reps. Troy Nehls of Texas and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, had previously said they would support Trump for the position.

Jordan’s allies tell The Dispatch that this shows he’s the strongest candidate to unify the conference: He’s shown he can be a team player, as when he voted in support of McCarthy’s debt-ceiling deal earlier this year, but he’s also far more trusted by the likes of Matt Gaetz. (“My mentor Jim Jordan would be great!” Gaetz tweeted earlier this week.)

That this argument is plausible speaks to how far to the right the conference has lurched during the current Congress—not because its individual members have grown more radical, but because its most radical members have proven far more willing to flex their procedural muscles than their counterparts on the supposedly more pragmatic wing.

And Jordan may have found one ally in an unlikely place: McCarthy himself, whose personal relationship with Scalise has long been considered frosty. Axios reported Thursday that McCarthy confidants have been quietly advocating against Scalise’s bid.  

One additional spanner in the works: Monday night’s conference debate will reportedly not take place behind closed doors, but instead be moderated by Fox News’ Bret Baier and televised on the network—an incredibly unusual move. Whether rank-and-file members will stand for this—and for the red-meat grandstanding such public scrutiny would infuse into the race—remains to be seen: Rep. Carlos Gimenez told CNN Friday morning that a televised debate is a “horrible idea”: “If both of them thought this was a good idea, then maybe they don’t have a pulse of the conference.”

In a sign of likely conference hostility to the idea, Jordan—who as the race’s relative outsider stands more to gain from a public debate—was backpedaling slightly away from it Friday morning, saying he wanted to meet with the whole conference ahead of the televised production.

Several other lawmakers are currently considered possible candidates for speaker, including Rep. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, and current speaker pro tem Patrick McHenry.

Christie Claims Competitiveness With DeSantis on Fundraising

PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire—Chris Christie insists his underdog presidential bid is more or less unfolding according to plan.

The former New Jersey governor tells The Dispatch his third-quarter fundraising report will show his war chest to be competitive with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose campaign ended September with, essentially, $5 million to spend in the Republican primary. And Christie dismissed polls pegging him at 9 percent—fourth and just behind DeSantis here in the Granite State, where he is stumping almost exclusively in his quest for the 2024 nomination. Momentum, Christie assures us, is building. 

“I think we’re making real ground here, which is the thing I’m most concerned about. Given what I’ve seen from DeSantis’ release on cash on hand, we’ll be very close to him. I feel like more of the candidates are starting to move closer to my message,” Christie said Thursday in an interview in downtown Portsmouth, a quaint community along the New Hampshire shore popular with summer beachgoers. 

Christie’s message, of course, is all about hammering Donald Trump: on personal character, on executive competence, and on the cloud of criminal indictments hanging over his candidacy. The New Jerseyan says the former president is still beatable here, despite garnering 45 percent and holding a big lead that has lasted since the race kicked off several months ago. 

“More and more people, as they start to focus on this, are going to be focusing on what is the single most important issue in the primary, which is: Can Donald Trump ever be elected president—and should he be elected president?” Christie says. “The more that people focus on that, I think they’re going to come to the conclusion—the overwhelming majority of people are going to come to the conclusion, in this state, that he shouldn’t be president again.”

But New Hampshire voters who agree with Christie, and desperately hope Republicans sideline Trump, are not convinced this fixture in national politics since winning the New Jersey governor’s mansion in 2009 deserves their support. Why should they back Christie in the GOP primary, he was asked at a Rotary Club luncheon in Portsmouth, when Nikki Haley is polling so much better than him—and is seemingly on the rise? The former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is polling second, at 14.2 percent.

Haley’s recent momentum is appealing because voters opposed to Trump are looking for a contender who demonstrates the ability to coalesce the support currently fragmented among the crowded field of candidates chasing the former president. They worry that splitting support among several Republicans will grease Trump’s path to the nomination, just as happened in the 2016 primary. 

“Tell me why I should vote for you and not Nikki Haley,” Larry Gray, 70, a registered independent, said to Christie. (Under New Hampshire law, independents can participate in primaries.)

Christie gets it. Indeed, he acknowledges that candidates are going to have to be willing to exit the race once it becomes clear they don’t have traction and have no chance of winning. And, characteristically candid, he conceded that he may eventually be faced with that decision. So: What would compel the confident, former New Jersey governor to call it quits?

“If somebody were to beat Trump in either Iowa or New Hampshire, I think it’s going to be very hard to stop the momentum of that person going forward and I think it’s going to be very hard for the other candidates in the race to make an argument against them,” Christie says. To further explain his line of thinking, he posed a hypothetical scenario in which North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a bigger underdog than Christie, wins the New Hampshire primary. 

“Let’s pick a more far-fetched one. If Doug Burgum were to beat Donald Trump in New Hampshire, I would feel like I had to get behind Doug, because he proved he could beat him some place—no one else has proven that, assuming that Trump wins Iowa—and I think you have an obligation to support the person who’s shown they can resonate with the voters,” Christie says.

Notable and Quotable

“We ran our caucus to basically support members in swing districts. That’s how we got power. Today, they run the caucus now to protect members from R+30 districts, to protect them in primaries.”

—Former GOP Rep. and political strategist Tom Davis to the Washington Post about the ongoing Republican House chaos, October 5, 2023

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