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Column: Watching the Real Leadership Race

Jul. 14, 2014 - 08:45AM   |  
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The GOP caucus picked Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California to move up from House majority whip to majority leader, and hardcore conservatives have spent weeks expressing shock. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP)
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Reporters camped out in a musty hallway in the basement of the US Capitol Building. Cable news networks breathlessly cut live to the scene, the dingy yellow walls providing the background for the dramatic scene.

At several points in mid-June the scene played out on live television and Twitter. Behind two large doors just beyond the groups of reporters glued to their mobiles were each House Republican.

The GOP caucus was still recovering from Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss in a Virginia congressional primary to a tea party challenger. Their task was to elect a new leader to replace Cantor, regarded by many longtime Washington hands as the lone defense-sector ally among the lower chamber’s agenda-setters.

The majority leader race was billed as the latest battle between the party’s far-right tea party members and the Republican establishment.

It was billed as “Real America” versus the “Country Club Republicans.”

The GOP caucus picked Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California to move up from House majority whip to majority leader. He is more associated with the latter than the former, and hardcore conservatives have spent weeks expressing shock.

They wonder why a party that just lost a powerful member like Cantor to a virtually unknown candidate from its conservative wing would opt against giving a tea partier a key to the leadership’s exclusive club.

Former Florida GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough, now host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, responded to McCarthy’s win over tea party-affiliated Texans like Jeb Hensarling and Pete Sessions as a sign the Republican Party’s leaders are too resistant of its far-right wing — and too out of touch with the level to which the faction’s message resonates with average Americans.

“We Republicans have got to figure out — I’ve said it time and time again, I’ve been saying it for 20 years — it’s not enough to be conservative,” Scarborough said after the leadership election. “We’ve got to get our message across.”

Tea party “leaders” like Hensarling pulled out of the majority leader’s race. But that does not mean the right wing didn’t want a seat at the big table.

“Kevin McCarthy represents the status quo of growing government and spending money we don’t have,” Matt Kibbe, president of tea party group FreedomWorks, said in June when urging Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, to seek the majority leader’s post. “Unlike Kevin McCarthy, Labrador is ready to make good policy and fiscal responsibility a priority in the House.”

In his statement upon exiting the leadership race, Hensarling said it was not “the right office at the right time.”

But soon there will come a new office, at a new time. Sources say tea party members are seriously mulling an offensive in January with a clear target: the speaker’s gavel that Ohio Rep. John Boehner still possesses.

For the defense and national security sector, that could spell trouble.

After all, as a Republican source said, Speaker Hensarling would be “mostly a bad thing for defense” because “he’s aligned with a wing of the party that doesn’t want to restore any sequestration cuts.” ■

John T. Bennett is the senior congressional reporter for Defense News. Email: Twitter: @BennettJohnT.

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