For a former talk-radio host, Mike Pence sure speaks softly and politely. A three-term Indiana congressman, Pence, 47, describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order." As head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, he's also become the sentinel of GOP budget hawks and government trimmers. When I interviewed him last January, shortly after Tom DeLay stepped down as House majority leader, many were wondering why Pence hadn't launched a bid to fill DeLay's post. "My passion is my young family," Pence told me. "My other passion is to serve the conservative cause." Both would be best advanced, he felt, if he remained Republican Study Committee boss. In the end, he wound up endorsing Republican Policy Committee chief John Shadegg of Arizona, a fierce conservative first elected with the vaunted GOP Class of 1994.
It was a three-way vote last winter, with Republicans splitting their ballots among Shadegg, acting majority leader Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Ohio's John Boehner. Blunt won a plurality of first-round votes, then lost to Boehner in a runoff. Shadegg finished a distant third, which many attributed to his late entry into the race. But now, in the aftermath of their Election Night trouncing, and with Speaker Dennis Hastert declining to stand for a leadership position in the 110th Congress, House Republicans have a chance to elevate both Pence and Shadegg, 57, into their top two slots. Pence has declared for minority leader; Shadegg for minority whip. They will be up against Boehner, the current majority leader, and Blunt, 56, the current majority whip, respectively. Other Republicans are working to sway the races, and at least one, Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton of Texas, has announced his own campaign for leader. But the four key players appear to be Boehner, Pence, Blunt, and Shadegg.
Despite Pence's popularity on the right, Boehner, who turns 57 this month, must be considered the favorite for leader. First elected in 1990, he burst onto the scene with the so-called Gang of Seven, a group of freshmen Republicans who zealously probed the House bank scandal. Last winter Boehner also painted himself as an anti-pork crusader: He had never voted for a federal highway bill and had long been critical of farm subsidies. But he also had close ties to K Street lobbying, and GOP reformers were hardly enthusiastic about his candidacy.
The obvious question now is: Will Republicans blame Boehner for the election debacle? Some might. Others might object that Boehner had been majority leader for less than a year — what could he have done to avert the anti-Republican wave? Surely the GOP leadership didn't take corruption scandals seriously enough. But while that may dent Boehner's image among grassroots Republicans, it's less clear that it will hurt him among his House colleagues.
His voting record is similar to Pence's, but not identical. Pence voted against the final version of the No Child Left Behind education bill and against the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, while Boehner helped author No Child Left Behind and supported the new Medicare entitlement. Pence also voted in favor of the massive 2002 farm bill, which Boehner strongly opposed. Although both men recently voted to build a 700-mile fence along part of the U.S.-Mexican border, neither is a hardliner on immigration. In fact, Pence has proposed a compromise plan that combines tougher border security with an eventual guest-worker program.
If Boehner looks poised to win the leader's race, many feel that will dampen Blunt's chances of staying on as GOP whip. The reason is simple: House Republicans probably want at least one fresh face in their two most senior posts. Last winter Blunt came under criticism for being too pork-friendly. Like Boehner and Pence, he and Shadegg have broadly similar voting records. But unlike Boehner, Blunt was the whip under DeLay, which makes it easy for Blunt's opponents to cast him as symbolic of the Old Guard. Democrats are sure to use the Abramoff cudgel against any Republican with close links to DeLay.
As we go to press on Friday, November 10, rumors are floating around to the effect that if Blunt thought he might lose, he would drop out and make room for Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. Some argue that Cantor has a better shot than Blunt at beating Shadegg. This is just speculation, of course. We'll know more in the days prior to the vote, scheduled for November 17.
Cantor is one of the GOP's Young Turks, a new generation of House conservatives who have become strong advocates of spending discipline and market-oriented entitlement reform. This group also includes Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Adam Putnam of Florida, and others. (Putnam, 32, is seeking to move up from policy committee head to conference chairman.) Last Friday the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Flake urging Republicans to "reemerge as the party of ideas" and resist being "assistant hirelings of big government."
That message may find a receptive audience amidst the post-election fallout. Whether it will translate into votes for Pence and Shadegg remains to be seen. (Flake endorsed both of them in his op-ed.) Boehner appears to have widespread backing from the caucus. Blunt's support is less certain. Echoing Flake, we can expect Pence and Shadegg to adopt one of the Democrats' mantras from 2006: "It's time for a change."
Duncan Currie is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.
By Duncan Currie