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Rep. Jim Jordan, Freedom Caucus co-founder, is exploring run for House speaker

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 4/13/2018 Mike DeBonis

Jim Jordan smiling for the camera: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) questioned FBI Director Christopher Wray in December during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bureau’s oversight. © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) questioned FBI Director Christopher Wray in December during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bureau’s oversight.

Rep. Jim Jordan, a prominent and polarizing conservative leader, is strongly considering a run for House speaker in a bid that could upend the race to succeed Paul D. Ryan.

Two Republican lawmakers said they had spoken with Jordan (R-Ohio) since Ryan announced his retirement Wednesday, and both said that they got the impression that Jordan would enter the race to lead the House GOP. The lawmakers spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Jordan, 54, is a former champion college wrestler who co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, a hard-line faction of about three dozen conservative lawmakers that could play a kingmaker role in any leadership race to come. Its members have been highly critical of the GOP leadership, especially after last month’s vote to pass a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill.

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Should Jordan enter the leadership derby, it would immediately scramble a race that till now was shaping up to be a duel between House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). 

Jordan did not respond to text messages and phone calls seeking comment Thursday night and Friday morning. Aides to Jordan and the Freedom Caucus also did not respond.

Jordan is an immensely popular figure in conservative grass-roots circles but a divisive figure outside of them, making his ascension to the speakership a long shot. Many more moderate rank-and-file Republicans resent the role he has played in opposing to leadership priorities, but he has been an unapologetic advocate for pursuing a more conservative agenda on Capitol Hill and a frequent presence on Fox News and other conservative media outlets.

Speaking Thursday night in a Fox Business Network interview, Jordan did not address whether he would be seeking a leadership post but criticized House Republican priorities.

“What we need to do is get refocused on what the American people sent us here to do, not do what we did three weeks ago and pass this omnibus spending bill,” he said. “To me it’s more important about what we do rather than who is speaker of the House.”

According to the lawmakers who spoke to Jordan about his plans, he has met with conservative activists seeking to draft him into the race. A number of prominent conservatives have also promoted Jordan on social media. Frank Gaffney, a conservative national security figure who has advised President Trump, issued a statement Thursday endorsing Jordan — calling on the GOP to choose “an authentic conservative with passion, energy and most importantly, Make American Great Again principles.”

Jordan has been a leading critic of the FBI and Justice Department’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state and of the circumstances that led to the federal probe of the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Jordan, who holds seats on the House oversight and judiciary committees, has called for a special counsel to investigate both probes — a position that has been wildly popular with the Republican base but rejected by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and top GOP congressional leaders.

Even if Jordan is unable to corral enough votes to become speaker — or minority leader if the GOP loses its House majority in the November midterms — he stands to siphon conservative support from McCarthy or other potential contenders, which would make a much more unpredictable contest.

McCarthy has beaten back conservative opposition before. In 2014 he won the majority leader position over Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), who would go on to co-found the Freedom Caucus. But that contest required McCarthy to win only a majority of House Republicans. In the speaker’s race, the victor would need to secure a majority of all House members — 218 votes if all are voting — and Jordan’s candidacy could make it impossible for McCarthy or any other candidate to reach that threshold.

It is unclear when an election to choose Ryan’s successor will take place.

Ryan insisted Thursday that he would serve until the end of his term, forcefully rejecting the growing calls within the Republican caucus for him to step aside and allow a quicker transition to a new leader. Republicans openly worried about how a lame-duck speaker and uncertainty in leadership would affect a party struggling to unify itself and raise money for midterm elections with their House majority in jeopardy. Several congressional Republicans, as well as some in the White House, have raised doubts about whether Ryan could stay on the job through the end of the year.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) said he thought the leadership elections would have to be moved up. “No disrespect to Paul, but quite frankly, you want somebody who’s got skin in the game for after the election,” he said. “I’m thinking that we’re not going to show that kind of patience and at some point in time we’re going to start talking about that.”

But Ryan moved to preempt an open succession scramble, telling reporters that he intended to “stay here and run through the tape” until a new Congress is seated in January.

“I’ve talked to a lot of members, a lot of members who think it’s in all of our best interests for this leadership team to stay in place,” he said, before framing the decision in financial terms: “I have shattered every fundraising record any speaker has ever set ... It makes no sense to take the biggest fundraiser off the field, and I think almost all of our members see it that way.”

Trump, who maintains a friendly relationship with McCarthy and good relations with Scalise, could play a key role in any leadership election. He is facing internal pressure not to weigh in publicly on the contest, according to two White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Ryan appeared to give McCarthy an implicit endorsement Thursday, saying that he was “encouraged” that Scalise had made comments deferring to McCarthy. “What it shows you is that we have an intact leadership team that supports each other, that’s all heading in the right direction,” he said.

The reality is more complicated: Scalise, speaking on Fox News on Thursday morning, said that he would not stand in McCarthy’s way in a speakership race. “I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” he said, but his comments fell short of an outright endorsement.

Asked Thursday whether he supported McCarthy for speaker, Scalise said that conversation is “way ahead of us.”

After he lost a bid to succeed House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2015, McCarthy has faced persistent doubts that he can persuade the necessary majority vote to elevate him to Ryan’s seat. Scalise would need to emerge as the prime alternative if McCarthy falters again.

Bowing in part to Ryan’s wishes to keep the jockeying under wraps, McCarthy has yet to declare his candidacy for the speakership and to openly solicit support for any move up the ladder.

Also speaking on Fox News on Thursday morning — to an audience that often includes Trump — McCarthy pledged to advance the president’s priorities rather than his own career.

“What means most to me is that in the next Congress there is an opportunity for a Republican to be speaker and not Nancy Pelosi,” he said, referring to the House Democratic leader. “We’ve accomplished a lot, and we’ve got a lot more to do on the Trump agenda.”

Paul Kane, Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.


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