The reckoning over House Republicans’ disappointing midterm performance could arrive in the form of a shaken-up race for their No. 3 leadership post next year.
Both Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) officially launched their campaigns for GOP whip on Wednesday, before House control was officially called for their party. Banks wrote in a letter to his colleagues that he could unite the conference heading into the majority, thanks to his stewardship of its largest internal caucus and his ties to outside conservative groups, and pledged to “be your voice.”
And he may have a stronger foothold than expected over House GOP campaign chief Emmer, his chief whip rival, who announced his own run just hours later. After top leader Kevin McCarthy’s onetime hopes of a 50-plus-seat midterm wave crashed into reality on Tuesday night, the Emmer-Banks battle will likely serve as a proxy for Republicans’ frustrations over their failure to meet expectations with voters, despite advantages both historical and cycle-specific.
In a call with reporters Wednesday, Emmer emphasized that his team had “delivered” on a Republican majority, and that was what mattered.
“This is not like any midterm you’ve ever seen because the numbers are not the same. We are playing in blue country,” Emmer said. “We flipped the House for just the third time since 1954 — I’m extremely proud of that accomplishment. I’m happy to make my case to my colleagues for the whip role, and there obviously will be more news on that soon.”
Multiple House Republicans are now questioning whether Emmer — who led key spending decisions in battleground races — has a clear path forward in leadership after their hopes of a red tsunami faded into a likely red ripple. A lot may yet change this week, but Banks’ early Wednesday declaration of his candidacy spoke volumes about the Republican Study Committee chair’s confidence. Current chief deputy whip Rep. Drew Ferguson of Georgia is also expected to quickly jump in after months of jockeying for the role behind the scenes.
The whip race is considered House Republicans’ most competitive and heated leadership race, with members assuming for months that McCarthy and now-Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) would become the next speaker and majority leader.
“I’m not sure if you’d call it a consensus, but there seems to be a lot of opinion that Emmer can’t win the race now,” a senior House Republican said, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity. “Colleagues are very reluctant to talk about it, and everybody should be … The people that I’ve communicated with this morning want to line up behind Drew.”
This GOP lawmaker cited the opinions of lobbyists, however — which don’t necessarily reflect lawmakers’ realities.
Emmer and his allies have been calling up members, according to a Republican familiar with the matter, as they make their case that the Minnesotan has twice led the National Republican Congressional Committee to gain seats over the past two cycles. They argue that while Republicans didn’t win as many seats as they wanted, Emmer still helped them win the House majority.
“I’ve lost zero on my whip countdown game, and I’ve gained two. So it’s weird. That’s like the conventional wisdom. I’m not seeing that in my numbers,” claimed Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), who has been whipping support for Emmer. “At the end of the day, you can’t refute the fact that he was successful two cycles in a row. … So I just think that this time it would be a complete betrayal, not to hand it back to a successful NRCC Chairman who wants a promotion.”
One GOP lawmaker, who is backing Emmer for the whip spot, argued that Tuesday’s results were a reflection of former President Donald Trump — not the GOP campaign chief.
“I think it’s more a repudiation of Trump than anything. You know a lot of his candidates went down. … Voters don’t like the bombast, the ‘burn the house down’ mindset. I think that hurt us,” the lawmaker said, adding that voters looked at Republicans and saw “the party of Trump and the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene and that’s not very likable.”
The makeup of next year’s House majority remains unclear, given the number of uncalled races.
As Emmer’s standing in the race comes under new scrutiny, Republicans couldn’t seem to decide whether potential defections from his camp would translate to votes for Banks or Ferguson.
“That job is a tough job. When you win, everybody takes credit. When you lose, you get all the blame,” another House Republican said, referring to Emmer’s position atop the NRCC. “I think the guy who had a good night was Drew.”
Ferguson has problems of his own, however, as he’s not favored by McCarthy. The GOP leader, despite being on good terms with his No. 2, has viewed the Georgia Republican suspiciously as a Scalise ally who’s less likely to be a loyal No. 3.
Some, meanwhile, thought Emmer should still get credit if Republicans take the House, no matter the total size of the majority.
“Not to be cavalier … They still get the credit. If we get the majority, Tom Emmer gets credit and Kevin McCarthy gets credit. They get the credit,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a House Freedom Caucus member, who attended McCarthy’s election night party Tuesday night.
The churn in the whip race comes as McCarthy and Scalise are working to lock down their respective positions as the No. 1 and No. 2 House Republicans next year. Scalise sent a letter to his colleagues Wednesday vowing to empower rank-and-file members and pledging to “work relentlessly to usher our vision through the House.”
Republicans are still betting that McCarthy snags the gavel — and he made his bid official Wednesday — but a narrower majority could mean headaches from a rightward flank that is eagerly waiting to exert its influence next year. Asked about McCarthy as the presumptive GOP leader, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said Wednesday: “I would say maybe not so fast.”
“Maybe we should have a good discussion within the confines of our internal body. We were told that we were going to have an incredible, incredible wave … but I think we need to have a serious discussion,” said Biggs, a member of the House Freedom Caucus.
Yet it’s the race for the No. 3 position has turned nasty in recent weeks, with Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. jumping into the fracas after the Daily Beast posted a story last month that quoted an anonymous Republican invoking 25-year-old Banks aide Buckley Carlson, son of the Fox News host. And while the quote didn’t have clear ties to Emmer, allies of Banks — including Trump Jr. — accused the campaign chief of authorizing his camp to go after the young aide, a charge Emmer and his camp have forcefully disputed.
The episode illustrated Banks’ ties to Trump world, an undeniable boon as the former president still holds significant sway with much of the House GOP approaching what’s expected to be the announcement of a third presidential bid as soon as next week. But other members said the outside noise from Carlson and Trump Jr. would not affect their votes in leadership races.
Those lawmakers who said they didn’t plan to support Emmer instead pointed to votes he took that they disagreed with, particularly his vote to protect same-sex and interracial marriage.
As a third House Republican put it after a surprising night: “All the calculations change. I just don’t know what those are yet.”