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GOP’s muted midterms jolt its House leadership rivalries

The reckoning over House Republicans’ disappointing midterm performance could arrive in the form of a shaken-up race for their No. 3 leadership post next year.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) officially launched his campaign for GOP whip on Wednesday morning in a letter to his colleagues sent before House control was officially called for their party. Banks’ pitch: that he can unite the conference heading into the majority, thanks to his stewardship of its largest internal caucus and his ties to outside conservative groups.

“I am running to be majority whip for our entire conference. I’m asking for your support because I want to listen and to be your voice,” Banks wrote in a letter whose contents were first reported by POLITICO.

And he may have a stronger foothold than expected over his chief whip rival, House GOP campaign chief Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.). After top leader Kevin McCarthy’s onetime hopes of a 50-plus-seat midterm wave crashed into reality on Tuesday night, the Emmer-Banks battle will likely serve as a proxy for Republicans’ frustrations over their failure to meet expectations with voters, despite advantages both historical and cycle-specific.

Multiple House Republicans are now questioning whether Emmer — who led key spending decisions in battleground races — has a clear path forward in leadership after their hopes of a red tsunami faded into a likely red ripple. A lot may yet change this week, but Banks’ Wednesday declaration of his candidacy spoke volumes about the Republican Study Committee chair’s confidence.

While Banks is the first to officially announce a whip campaign, both Emmer and current chief deputy whip Rep. Drew Ferguson of Georgia are also expected to quickly jump in after months of jockeying for the role behind the scenes.

The whip race is considered House Republicans’ most competitive and heated leadership race, with members assuming for months that McCarthy and now-Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) would become the next speaker and majority leader.

“I’m not sure if you’d call it a consensus, but there seems to be a lot of opinion that Emmer can’t win the race now,” a senior House Republican said, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity. “Colleagues are very reluctant to talk about it, and everybody should be … The people that I’ve communicated with this morning want to line up behind Drew, and they’re actually making calls to Emmer and trying to work something out.”

This GOP lawmaker cited the opinions of lobbyists, however — which don’t necessarily reflect lawmakers’ realities.

Emmer and his allies have been calling up members, according to a Republican familiar with the matter, as they make their case that the Minnesotan has twice led the National Republican Congressional Committee to gain seats over the past two cycles. They argue that while Republicans didn’t win as many seats as they wanted, Emmer still helped them win the House majority.

The makeup of next year’s House majority remains unclear, given the number of uncalled races.

As Emmer’s standing in the race comes under new scrutiny, Republicans couldn’t seem to decide whether potential defections from his camp would translate to votes for Banks or Ferguson.

“That job is a tough job. When you win, everybody takes credit. When you lose, you get all the blame,” another House Republican said, referring to Emmer’s position atop the NRCC. “I think the guy who had a good night was Drew.”

Ferguson has problems of his own, however, as he’s not favored by McCarthy. The GOP leader, despite being on good terms with his No. 2, has viewed the Georgia Republican suspiciously as a Scalise ally who’s less likely to be a loyal No. 3.

Some, meanwhile, thought Emmer should still get credit if Republicans take the House, no matter the total size of the majority.

“Not to be cavalier … They still get the credit. If we get the majority, Tom Emmer gets credit and Kevin McCarthy gets credit. They get the credit,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a House Freedom Caucus member, who attended McCarthy’s election night party Tuesday night.

“This is mob rule. If your mob is one person bigger than the other mob, you won the lottery,” he added.

The race for the No. 3 position has turned nasty in recent weeks, with Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. jumping into the fracas after the Daily Beast posted a story last month that quoted an anonymous Republican invoking 25-year-old Banks aide Buckley Carlson, son of the Fox News host. And while the quote didn’t have clear ties to Emmer, allies of Banks — including Trump Jr. — accused the campaign chief of authorizing his camp to go after the young aide, a charge Emmer and his camp have forcefully disputed.

The episode illustrated Banks’ ties to Trump world, an undeniable boon as the former president still holds significant sway with much of the House GOP approaching what’s expected to be the announcement of a third presidential bid as soon as next week. But other members said the outside noise from Carlson and Trump Jr. would not affect their votes in leadership races.

Those lawmakers who said they didn’t plan to support Emmer instead pointed to votes he took that they disagreed with, particularly his vote to protect same-sex and interracial marriage.

As a third House Republican put it after a surprising night: “All the calculations change. I just don’t know what those are yet.”

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