Oct 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Breaking down the top contenders in the GOP speaker race

McCarthy (left) and Emmer. Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Kevin McCarthy's ouster as House speaker has led Republicans on the political journey of a lifetime — rife with plot twists, petty feuds, and even acknowledgments by GOP lawmakers that their party is not fit to govern.

Why it matters: 20 days later, the "broken" Republican conference is back where it started — hosting a closed-door forum to hear from candidates who may or may not be able to win 217 votes on the House floor.

State of play: Eight Republicans may be making their pitch to the conference on Monday tonight, but top GOP sources generally see it as a four-man race. Here's a quick breakdown:

1. Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.): The No. 3 House Republican in leadership (before McCarthy's removal) is widely considered the next man up after GOP Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) stepped aside without a floor vote.

  • Emmer, the head of the House GOP's campaign committee during the 2022 midterms, is a strong fundraiser trusted by vulnerable freshmen who represent battleground districts.
  • Emmer has relationships across the conference's ideological factions, but his votes in favor of protecting same-sex marriage and certifying the 2020 election have alienated some conservatives.

2. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.): The Freedom Caucus Republican has strong support from conservatives, and his lack of experience in leadership could give him a leg up over Emmer among members who want fresh blood.

  • Donalds has already won endorsements from Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Carlos Giménez (R-Fla.) — both of whom were key to sinking Rep. Jim Jordan's (R-Ohio) speaker bid.
  • Donalds has only been in Congress since 2021, however, and some members fear he doesn't have the fundraising infrastructure that lawmakers count on their speaker delivering.

3. GOP Vice Conference Chair Mike Johnson (R-La.): A well-liked member of leadership, Johnson is widely viewed as a policy-oriented and principled conservative — if not a bit milquetoast.

  • Some moderates don't like that Johnson led the amicus brief signed by more than 100 House Republicans in support of a Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 election results in four swing states.
  • He also faces a geographical hurdle: Scalise, who would still be the No. 2 House Republican if Johnson is elected, is also from Louisiana.

4. Republican Study Committee Chair Kevin Hern (R-Okla.): The head of the largest bloc of House conservatives is a former McDonalds franchisee who has been handing out cheeseburgers alongside his one-page pitch.

  • Hern's role as RSC chair means he has already laid out plenty of policy proposals supported by conservatives, but he faces skepticism from moderates and McCarthy allies.

The intrigue: Trump allies have been circulating extensive opposition research in an effort to tank Emmer's bid, even as the former president himself signaled he'll be staying out of the race this time around.

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