THE SKIES ABOVE UTICA, N.Y. – Steve Scalise spent years in the role of Kevin McCarthy’s qualified understudy, perceived as ready to step in if he stumbled. All that has changed as Republicans draw closer to retaking the House.
It’s been more than four years since the gregarious 57-year-old openly discussed his interest in becoming speaker, propelling speculation of a McCarthy rivalry that didn’t stop when he made clear he had no designs to challenge the Californian for the role. Lately, though, Scalise strikes all the right notes as he stays in lockstep with his No. 1.
Scalise made clear he’s happy right where he is during a recent interview in between multistate campaign swings, answering questions about the GOP’s agenda with hopes that he would be “fortunate enough to be majority leader.”
And as go-go as Scalise has been on the trail for Republicans, he remains second to McCarthy there too: Since October began, Scalise has visited 17 different states stumping for 42 members. Over the same period, McCarthy has traveled in support of 170 GOP candidates and incumbents — including to 9 states alone last week.
“I just have a lot of trust” in Scalise, McCarthy told POLITICO, lauding the Louisianan for his work on energy policy as well as the conference’s “Commitment to America” framework before calling them “a really strong team” and observing that “the struggles we’ve been through have made us stronger.”
That burying of old tensions may soon come in handy. Almost as soon as Republicans complete a likely House takeover next week, the duo is set to face withering pressure from divided wings of their conference to pursue impeachments of Biden administration officials — and potentially the president himself.
“I think that Scalise and McCarthy get along a lot better than what the media tries to portray,” said Kentucky Rep. James Comer, the top Oversight Committee Republican who will serve as one of party leadership’s two point men on bombarding Biden’s team with investigative work.
“We’re all heading into January getting along really well and knowing that there are a lot of different ideologies in our conference, a lot of different levels of conservatism,” Comer added. “But at the end of the day, I think we’re very united in trying to fix the problems, all the crises that Joe Biden created.”
Of course, showing unity before you take a congressional majority is a lot easier than maintaining it while in power. As much as House Republicans agree in principle on serving as an aggressive check on what’s been a fully Democratic-controlled government, the question of how far to go will mutually challenge McCarthy and Scalise — who are currently uncontested favorites for the speakership and majority leader post, respectively.
Scalise may find that the hardest part of his job is working with McCarthy to assuage conservatives’ push for revenge against a Democratic Party that the GOP’s right flank despises after years of what it saw as unfair Trump impeachments. McCarthy has tried to keep impeachment conversations at arm’s length, remarking in recent interviews that he doesn’t want it to be used for political reasons.
But McCarthy’s answers also left the door cracked for his conference to move ahead on impeachments. Some of his pro-Trump members are already making their pressure for it plain.
“This will happen. Not for political reasons. But because it must be done. Any GOP Member growing weak on this will sorely disappoint our country,” freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted earlier this week, linking to a story about the expected GOP push for impeaching Biden.
Scalise, who previously served in the Louisiana state legislature for more than a decade, says he’s had plenty of helpful practice bringing factions together to build consensus. After all, his current job as minority whip often requires him to nudge members to take tough votes.
“I love getting to know my colleagues as the whip, because you really do get to work with everybody. And you understand all the different factions and what makes people tick,” Scalise said aboard a charter plane last week as he raced from campaign event to campaign event.
“I recognize that not everybody thinks the same way in our party,” he added, “but most people want to get to the same place.”
That isn’t to say all the competition between the House GOP’s No. 1 and No. 2 has dissipated.
Heading into a new Congress that will start with a shuffling of leadership positions, there are still potential mini-proxy battles at play as McCarthy looks to fill his leadership team with loyal allies, while Scalise looks to bring in his. And despite the softer tone between Scalise and McCarthy, the former has signaled his informal support to raise chief deputy whip Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) to majority-whip status.
McCarthy has sent a counter-signal: The majority whip shouldn’t be Ferguson, but one of the other two candidates, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) or Jim Banks (R-Ind.).
Even that shadow-boxing for their favorites, however, is a far cry from the more conspicuous rivalry that once existed between Scalise and McCarthy. Many of their members say privately that a dynamic once plagued by suspicion, subtle alliances between divided teams and behind-the-scenes jockeying now seems behind them.
“On anything, there’s going to be struggles and differences of opinion,” McCarthy said. “The great thing about our relationship: we respect each other’s differences of opinion. And I actually seek them out.”
That shift began in earnest in 2018, when McCarthy took over for Paul Ryan and entered the minority with Scalise as his No. 2. Their goodwill solidified thanks to their shared exhaustive recruiting, fundraising and campaigning work down the stretch toward a shared goal: not just flipping the House, but shaping the contours of the GOP’s incoming class as well to be ambitious and governable at the same time.
McCarthy transferred $52 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee and state parties throughout the 2022 cycle to date and $18.5 million to individual candidates and members; Scalise has raised $53.4 million in total this cycle, transferring about $25.1 million to the House GOP campaign arm and $3.4 million to individual members and candidates.
The two top leaders also focused their fundraising on so-called reach seats in the final days of the election, according to multiple people familiar with their plans — a sign of confidence in the outcome Tuesday night.
Scalise, who came to Congress in 2008, has an open-secret talent that could help calm GOP conference nerves going forward. A known foodie, he’s often built relationships by breaking bread with colleagues.
Over the past four years, deputy whip Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) observed, I haven’t seen Scalise “lose too many whip votes.”