By Makini Brice and Moira Warburton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Steve Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Jim Jordan, a leader of the party’s conservative wing, are in a two-way race to lead the chamber after the historic ouster of Kevin McCarthy, but neither has the election sewn up.
Scalise, a lawmaker from Louisiana, has taken the more traditional route to the top by raising money and building relationships across the party, while Jordan has made his mark as a right-wing firebrand.
Jordan is a leading defender of former President Donald Trump, who remains a major figure in the Republican party.
Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, endorsed Jordan for House speaker on Friday. But it remains to be seen how much weight that will carry. Some Republicans ignored Trump’s calls for unity during McCarthy’s drawn-out battle for the speaker’s gavel in January.
As of Friday, both Scalise and Jordan had secured roughly two dozen endorsements from among the 221 Republicans in the House.
Republicans are due to choose their leader in a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, though it may take a while for them to settle on a candidate. Kevin Hern, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, is also expected to run, and other candidates could still surface. Representative Patrick McHenry currently holds the position on a temporary basis.
Whoever wins will have to negotiate a funding deal to keep the government open past a Nov. 17 deadline and oversee an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden that Democrats say is unfounded. The speaker will also have to decide whether to back more Ukraine aid, which many rank-and-file Republicans oppose.
The full House votes on a speaker. Republicans hold a 221-212 majority in the House and can only spare four votes if opposition Democrats stick together.
FUNDRAISER VS. FIREBRAND
Scalise, 57, has been elected to leadership positions in the House since 2014 and had been considered McCarthy’s heir apparent. He was the Republicans’ No. 2 fundraiser last year, which could help him in his leadership bid.
Scalise was seriously wounded in June 2017 when a man who had criticized Republicans on social media shot him and other lawmakers as they were practicing for a charity baseball game. He returned to the House three months later.
In August, the Louisiana lawmaker announced he was seeking treatment for multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. Scalise returned to the Capitol in September and has said that he is healthy enough to serve as speaker.
Scalise drew criticism for a speech he made in 2002 as a state lawmaker to a white supremacist group tied to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Scalise has said he regretted the mistake.
An aide to Scalise said he has been on the phone “nonstop” with other members since announcing his run.
Scalise faces a formidable challenger in Jordan. A lawmaker from Ohio, Jordan heads the House Judiciary Committee, one of the three panels at the center of the Biden impeachment inquiry.
“He has a lot of momentum, but he is obviously still the underdog,” a source familiar with the race said.
Jordan was a vocal backer of Trump’s efforts to undermine his 2020 election defeat to Democrat Joe Biden.
The former college wrestling coach was one of the founders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and has sparred with members of his own party in the past, most notably when he was part of a small group of hardliners who pressured Republican speaker John Boehner into resigning in 2015.
Jordan, 59, is an outsider to party leadership. He lost a 2018 leadership challenge to McCarthy but eventually became a close ally.
Wrestlers coached by Jordan said in 2018 he was aware the team doctor was molesting them. He has denied any knowledge of it.
(Reporting by Makini Brice and Moira Warburton; additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Rami Ayyub)