The Freedom Caucus firebrand you may not know well — but should

Very few House Republicans have made Kevin McCarthy’s life more miserable recently than Andy Biggs.

When conservatives were upset that McCarthy might waltz to the speakership in January, it was Biggs (R-Ariz.) who stepped forward to run against him. Biggs rose to prominence leading the Freedom Caucus during the final two years of former President Donald Trump’s term, staunchly defending Trump’s stolen election lies.

So when Biggs said in a recent interview that he has compassion for McCarthy’s predicament — constantly pulled between the rebellious right and cautious moderates — well, it’s not exactly what you’d expect to hear from the 65-year-old Arizona Republican.

His reasoning goes back nearly a decade to a chapter of Biggs’ career that gets little attention: his time as Arizona’s state senate president. Less than a year into that job, Biggs battled moderate Republicans and Democrats over his opposition to a Medicaid expansion bill that his state’s own GOP governor backed.

Much like McCarthy during this spring’s debt showdown, Biggs had to balance the expectations of conservatives — i.e., his own – with the pull of bipartisanship. Biggs, like McCarthy, even faced a threat of potential ouster from his leadership post.

“I have a certain degree of empathy” for McCarthy, Biggs told POLITICO.

The flash of compassion suggests that one of the right flank’s most vocal figures hasn’t figured whether he wants to be an occasional McCarthy gadfly — or the first to un-sheath the knife to take out the speaker. It’s tempting to see Biggs as one of the most likely members to force a House vote on booting McCarthy, a drastic measure that his fellow conservatives fought for the power to take.

But Biggs is clearly still deciding.

Biggs (right) talks with McCarthy during the tenth vote in the House chamber as the House meets for the third day to elect a speaker on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.
The state Senate and a ‘weird dichotomy’

Back when he resisted advancing the Medicaid bill, Biggs recalled its backers warning him that “we’re going to remove you from the Senate presidency” if it got blocked. Those threats came, he said, even from his own No. 2 in leadership at the time.

Ultimately, the bill’s advocates got the bill passed, putting the entire state party in what Biggs called an “uncomfortable” position.

“I absolutely understand” what McCarthy has to deal with in light of that experience, Biggs said before last month’s debt vote. “And it's on steroids [in the U.S. House]. I had a smaller body to deal with in the Arizona State Legislature than what Kevin has to deal with as speaker.

One former Arizona statehouse colleague remembered Biggs as “effective” in that leadership spot, despite not necessarily feeling at ease trying to build coalitions.

“I always sensed from him a discomfort in his role as Senate president when it came to the necessary compromises of governing,” former state House speaker Kirk Adams, who served alongside Biggs, said in an interview. “My guess is that he feels more comfortable in assuming the role of what he views as the conscience of the party.”

That paradoxical approach embodies what longtime friend Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) called the “weird dichotomy” of Biggs.

His reputation in the House

The rock-and-roll-loving Mormon has his own fair share of critics inside the party who appear largely unfamiliar with his past. Some House Republicans view Biggs’ legislative persona as an unlicensed backseat driver, a constant no vote who still tries to give direction on how to make policy. Out of the roughly 760 bills he’s introduced, only four have become law.

His allies in and outside the Freedom Caucus counter that he’s simply a dedicated ideologue, unwilling to bend when he picks a fight he believes in. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) lauded him as a legislative “guiding light.” Schweikert pointed to Biggs' softer side, noting that he mentors children at his local church.

Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), a McCarthy ally, called Biggs “serious” and policy-focused, as well as one of his closest friends in the chamber. The Arizonan “isn’t shy,” Emmer added, but also isn’t someone who “relishes conflict.”

In that vein, Biggs told POLITICO last month that he couldn’t “think of a scenario in which I would” move to force a House vote on the so-called “motion to vacate the chair,” which would effectively amount to ejecting the speaker. It would require a “remarkable” provocation for him to propose that vote on McCarthy’s future, Biggs said.

His definition of that word, though, is subjective and therefore impossible to pin down. And Biggs, who fielded calls from Republicans seeking advice about whether to try to eject McCarthy during the right flank’s recent debt-deal revolt, said in another recent interview that the speaker’s bipartisan agreement was “remarkably” bad — a word choice that did not appear lost on Biggs.

In the same interview, he called for “strategic” resistance from the right. Biggs described the recent House floor protest mounted by about a dozen Republicans, which he joined, as a scaled-back expression of “disapprobation” of party leaders.

Trump, Biden and Jan. 6

As his former colleague Adams sees it, Biggs’ stalwart defense of Trump has proven the most surprising part of his congressional career. Adams recalled confronting Biggs on the topic as Biggs weighed a U.S. Senate run, which he later ruled out.

Biggs “swallowed his tongue on Donald Trump's deficit spending and debt accumulation,” Adams said. “The Andy Biggs that I knew would have been vociferous about the lack of fiscal discipline.”

Indeed, Biggs has shown a notable political inconsistency depending on who’s in the Oval Office — though that trait runs rampant among both Republicans and Democrats. During Trump’s term, the Arizonan railed against Democrats for pursuing impeachments that amounted to one of Congress’ “most serious, constitutional duties.”

Now that Joe Biden is president, Biggs is quick to tease potential impeachment proceedings over an FBI document in which a whistleblower alleges an unproven bribery scheme involving the president’s family. Biggs is also pushing for the impeachment of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over their handling of inquiries into Hunter Biden’s overseas clients and the U.S.-Mexico border, respectively.

Yet despite his objection to certifying Biden’s 2020 victory and his hardline views, Biggs does call some Democrats friends. The only one he’d name publicly, though, is Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) — for fear that they would “immediately be ostracized” based on his kind words.

The three House Democrats in Arizona’s delegation largely sidestepped questions about their relationship with him, offering neither praise nor condemnation.

Biggs, for his part, argues that Democrats have unfairly judged him for the Jan. 6 Capitol assault, after which he faced particular scrutiny for joining a few other GOP lawmakers to meet with Trump about challenging Biden’s electoral win.

“This obsession that I somehow organized … an insurrection on January 6, 2021, I find that to be one of the weirdest things ever,” Biggs said, calling it frustrating: “There's some Democrats that I go out and try to talk to, and they will just immediately say ‘you're an insurrectionist’ to me.”

In fact, Biggs has experienced political combat going back to his childhood. He recalled his mother, a grassroots conservative activist, facing retribution for publicly espousing conservative views during his childhood in bluer Tucson.

Whenever his mother would go on the radio or write an op-ed to express her views, Biggs said that “almost every time, my car would get egged.”

But every now and then, he avoids all-out rhetorical warfare with a political opponent. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), with whom Biggs also served in state politics, held a friendly on-stage debate with him in 2018, when Republicans controlled all of Washington.

Sinema, then still a registered Democrat, argued in favor of preserving the U.S. Senate filibuster, in order to encourage debate.

Biggs argued at that time for axing the filibuster — perhaps Congress’ most powerful tool for gadflies like himself.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the total number of bills that passed with Biggs as lead sponsor.
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Meet the House GOP’s newly crowned comedy king

Every class has its clown, and in the House GOP no one has earned that reputation quite like Rep. Tim Burchett.

When the Tennessee Republican first met the wife of Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) in 2018, he simultaneously complimented her appearance while jokingly digging at her husband’s — taking off his glasses, handing them to her and saying: “Ma’am, you need these more than me.”

He once corrected someone who mispronounced his last name by telling them: “It is ‘birch’ like the tree, and ‘shit’ like the thing you ate for breakfast this morning.” And after visiting then-President Donald Trump at the White House with other members, Burchett was the last to run onto the bus — yelling they needed to peel out because he’d just stolen the baby Jesus from the Nativity scene (he had not actually done so).

“With Billy Long leaving Congress, the conference is in search of a new class clown,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.). “And I nominate Tim Burchett … he’s so unpredictable. He says the craziest things.”

Newly-elected Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican, left, and Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, exchange a fist bump from opposite sides of the aisle on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019.

Approachable and unguarded, Burchett is perhaps one of the least filtered members, making comments even to reporters that most politicians would fight to bury. His wisecracking and jovial nature have attracted him friends on both sides of the aisle, despite his conservative voting record, in a time when the House’s cross-party relationships are growing rarer. Asked about his unusual freewheeling approach, he replied that his constituents from East Tennessee “don’t care about that stuff.”

“I don’t take myself seriously. I take the job seriously,” Burchett said in an interview, one day before Christmas Eve.

Others agreed. GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy could tick off multiple funny moments courtesy of Burchett, but also praised him as a constituent-focused member. He said Burchett “uses that ‘aw shucks,’ but he’s very smart.”

“He has the ability to take a serious situation, lighten the room, but also make his point,” McCarthy said.

This month, Burchett invited media, colleagues and staff to a holiday party set to last 15 minutes, and said there would “possibly” be refreshments. The party, which did in fact last 15 minutes, featured a PB&J sandwich stand, a “charcuterie” board that was just Burchett spraying cheese whiz on Ritz crackers, and Christmas music courtesy of Texas GOP Reps. Louie Gohmert and Brian Babin strumming guitars.

And while the funny-guy persona has a way of overshadowing his message at times, he also uses his jokes to inoffensively vent about Hill dynamics. He isn’t a fan of the power structures that govern who rises in leadership or receives coveted committee roles, for example, which often includes alliances with party leaders, fundraising and general schmoozing.

“I get frustrated with the whole system,” Burchett said, noting that he has approached McCarthy requesting positions on certain panels, like the House Intelligence Committee. “I don’t kiss enough butt and I don’t raise money to move up in conference, so I get aggravated about that. There’s definitely some people I would say should be in some positions that they’re not, just because of that. And I hate missed opportunity.”

He also tries to provide levity in tense situations — with mixed results. Earlier this month, he elicited both chuckles and cringes during a heated moment in a conference-wide meeting, as some of his colleagues grew irritated that McCarthy allies were getting extra time from their colleagues to speak in defense of his speakership bid.

Burchett went to a microphone and bashed their weekly conference meetings as a waste of time where they never learn anything. And he told Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who was managing whose turn it was to speak, that if he wanted to be disrespected by a woman, he’d go home to his wife and daughter. Some appreciated the humor, while others felt that directing the comment at the top woman in Republican leadership took the joke too far.

Generally, there is a sense among his Capitol Hill colleagues that Burchett is just that kind of person who can get away with comments that the rest of them couldn’t pull off.

“He says whatever the hell he wants to and people can get offended. He didn’t give a flip,” said GOP Rep. Mark Green, who is part of the Tennessee delegation with Burchett. “And he’s gotten to the point where people take it from him. If I said that, there’d be a [negative] article about me.”

There are plenty of incidents that back up Green’s claim. Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.) said Burchett calls him his “favorite Jew after Jesus.” And, according to Armstrong, when Burchett’s chief of staff got hit by a scooter and they’d verified he was OK, he and some others gifted the chief a helmet, whistle and cape branded with Burchett’s friendly nickname for his top staffer: “Big Sexy.”

At times, Burchett’s jokes feel absolutely random. Last year, he waltzed up to Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), a first-term lawmaker who was wearing a purple ribbon to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic at the time, and told her purple was his favorite color. He said he grew up sleeping in purple sheets, but then when he was 12 his mom tried to throw them away after a baby gerbil ate holes in them.

“No, Momma, not my purple sheets!” he yelled, recalling the episode to a confused but amused Dean, whom Burchett said he had just met.

Unlike most politicians on Capitol Hill, the Tennessee Republican isn’t carefully constructing his image or donning the beltway uniform of penny loafers and button-down shirts. In fact, Burchett’s colleagues were more concerned about sharing the lawmaker’s jokes publicly, fearing bad optics or negative misinterpretations by the public, than Burchett was himself.

Rep. Tim Burchett, R-tenn., speaks as the House of Representatives debates the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. (House Television via AP)

He saunters around the Capitol in the same tan-brown Carhartt jacket (don’t get his friends started on the reports that have dubbed Sen.-elect John Fetterman [D-Pa.] as Congress’ Carhartt ambassador), throwing out fist-bumps to friends, checking in on strangers and scandalized colleagues in a Holden Caulfield fashion, talking about how much he loves his wife and daughter, and randomly striking up conversations about when he used to sell items on Ebay as a side-hustle.

And while his voting record resembles those of members in the House Freedom Caucus, his relationships across the aisle are starkly different. He and Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly embraced after Burchett told her that he was praying for her husband after the violent assault at Pelosi’s San Francisco home, as the Tennessean recalled. He is also known to fist-bump with Democrats like progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), an association that his GOP colleagues say would destroy other members among base voters.

But he doesn’t want his interactions with Democrats to end there. He has three goals he remembers listing off to now-former Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.):

“I want to run down South Beach hand-in-hand with [former Rep.] Donna Shalala. I want to go to the Bronx and party with AOC. I don’t know if she lives in the Bronx or not … I’ve never been to New York,” Burchett said. “And I said I want to party in the Kennedy compound.”

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Scalise prepares to shift from whip to McCarthy’s hand-in-glove No. 2

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.”

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The feud with Donald Trump Jr. and Tucker Carlson that could swing the House GOP whip race

Tom Emmer is stuck in a place no Republican politician wants to be: on the wrong side of Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr.

But some GOP lawmakers believe Emmer’s run-in with the pair of MAGA players — a drama gripping the House Republican Conference — may end up helping him secure one of the most powerful posts in the next Congress.

The saga began a few weeks ago, when the Daily Beast posted a story quoting an anonymous Republican invoking 25-year-old Buckley Carlson, the son of the Fox News host and an aide to Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). Emmer and Banks are battling to become GOP whip if Republicans win the House.

The anonymous Republican suggested that Banks hired Buckley Carlson as communications director to bolster himself with the "Establishment." While the quote had no clear connection to Emmer, allies of Banks — including Tucker Carlson and Trump Jr. — accused the House GOP’s campaigns chief of authorizing his camp to go after the young aide.

What’s far from clear is whether this finger-pointing, perceived as being on Banks’ behalf, will help or hurt him in the whip race. Some GOP lawmakers are rallying behind the Hoosier, but others are warning that bringing outside party personalities into internal matters could backfire. Still others say the third whip hopeful, current chief deputy whip Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), could prove the biggest beneficiary of the flap.

Interviews with more than a dozen House Republicans across the conference’s ideological spectrum reflected a common view that Banks' allies are using the anonymous quote to take a political shot at Emmer.

“It detracts from his effort. If you look at how Emmer and Ferguson are handling this race, they're campaigning for a position. Not against each other,” said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), an Emmer ally who’s helping him whip votes for what would be the No. 3 leadership post next year if the GOP retakes the House. “And I think members appreciate that.”

Just because multiple House Republicans say they smell a Banks-designed ploy, though, doesn’t mean he won’t get an edge from the brouhaha — even if indirectly. That’s because the fierceness with which Carlson and Trump Jr. pushed back on the anonymous quote showcased Banks’ strength with Trump world.

A significant number of GOP lawmakers, including a handful in the Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus, shrugged off the quote and the surrounding drama as a non-factor in the race.

“I don't think members in the conference are going to be swayed by that kind of stuff, those reports,” said Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member who praised the resumes of the three candidates in the race and added that “pretty much everybody's gonna vote for who they think is the best person.”

Another House Freedom Caucus member, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity about a leadership race that’s not formally underway until after Election Day, put it more bluntly: “It’s designed to hurt Emmer. But it’s transparent, so likely ineffective.”

Yet the pro-Trump group appears divided on the episode’s bigger impact. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) jumped in to declare herself team Buckley Carlson, and two other Freedom Caucus members said Trump world's alignment against Emmer reinforced their sense that Banks is the right choice for whip.

For some House Republicans of all persuasions who remain undecided, the kerfuffle underscored concerns about Banks: that he would sic Trump world on any member who clashes with him and his allies have distracted the conference from the midterms. Others simply suggested the pulse of the conference is moving away from the ex-president so the Trump world ties aren’t as important as they once were.

The members who saw it as a political move felt bolstered by another connection they saw between Banks and Trump world: Andy Surabian, a close Trump Jr. ally who also works for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, was recently hired to work on Banks’ new super PAC.

“It was meant to hurt [Emmer] ... It may have helped him,” said one senior House Republican, who pointed to various times Tucker Carlson has created headaches for the Republican conference, like his take on the Ukraine invasion as well as legislation related to a Covid vaccine database.

“You're assuming that the majority of our conference wants to continue to kiss Trump’s ass,” this member continued. “It is not that they have a problem with Trump. The majority of our conference is ready to move on past Trump.”

Other members passionately disputed this view, arguing that Trump and his top allies are still major figures in their party and that maintaining inroads with Trump world remains important — and doing so benefits Banks.

Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), left, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, right, listen to Republican Conference Chair Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 11, 2020.

And close allies of Trump Jr. also emphasized that his dislike of Emmer wasn’t triggered so much as escalated by the anonymous quote.

Rather, his souring view toward Emmer dates back to the National Republican Congressional Committee chair’s refusal to endorse Harriet Hageman in the Wyoming primary against incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a House GOP persona-non-grata over her Trump criticisms and role on the Jan. 6 select committee. The NRCC typically doesn't get involved in primaries, though some argued Cheney's was a special case.

Still, some members predicted Banks showcasing his strength with Trump world could counteract conference annoyance over the fracas — because some see an advantage in having a whip that could shield the more moderate lawmakers and other members of leadership from public attacks from the right. After all, Carlson has gone after GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), and others in the party.

Most members who say they won’t support Emmer continued to point to other reasons, like his voting record on social bills, including voting with Democrats and dozens of other Republicans to protect same-sex and interracial marriage. That vote wasn’t received well by the right wing of the party. A Freedom Caucus member supporting Banks said that "reinforced a concern” about Emmer's conservative bona fides, in addition to his previous work for a group that pushed to abolish the electoral college.

So far, Tucker Carlson has not gone publicly after Emmer. But that could all change in the days leading up to the House GOP leadership vote — or even after. Some House Republicans said if the most powerful name in conservative media had a personal motivation to go after their No. 3 each week, wreaking havoc on both Emmer and the conference while he tried to whip votes, it would be a problem they’d consider.

But Weber also shrugged off the idea that an airwave assault by Tucker Carlson would make a significant difference: “Whether [Tucker] going after another member is going to be of much concern to anybody? I wouldn’t think so.”

The race will quickly after the election, when candidates are expected to roll out various endorsements as they try to build momentum heading into the leadership vote on Nov. 15.

But with new battle lines drawn, some viewed it as a loss for both Banks and Emmer. Multiple members said Ferguson may be able to emerge from the smoke unscathed and win more support as the drama-free candidate.

As one House Republican, who remains undecided on the whip race, put it: “All of a sudden, you have Ferguson looking like that flower that is blooming away from all this.”

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Freedom Caucus poised to pull its hardest McCarthy punch

As the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus plots how to exert its influence on next year’s likely GOP majority, its members are poised to holster a potent political weapon: Challenging Kevin McCarthy.

With the California Republican still the uncontested frontrunner for speaker next year, his biggest potential threat — aside from a November collapse that leaves him with a threadbare majority — is a Freedom Caucus-backed rival. But interviews with more than a dozen members of the conservative group indicate they're not moving to coalesce against the GOP leader as they have in the past.

In short, the Freedom Caucus that blocked McCarthy’s path to the gavel seven years ago has evolved into a bloc that's willing to use its leverage to secure procedural demands, but not to blow up the race for speaker.

"I hope … we're not going to mount a challenge,” Freedom Caucus member Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) said in an interview. "This is the most organized we've ever been. So why would we change it?"

The group does plan to push for modifications that would empower them in a future Republican majority, including the power to force a speaker eviction vote — what’s known as the “motion to vacate the chair.” And there’s still time to change their minds on a direct McCarthy challenge.

Even so, should a Freedom Caucus lawmaker jump into the speaker race, some say the roughly 35-member group isn’t expected to rally behind whoever emerges — underscoring McCarthy’s strength within the conference.

One big reason for the shift is that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), perhaps the group's most powerful figure, is now among McCarthy’s closest allies. Once a rival who harnessed his sway with the conference's right flank to challenge the Californian for minority leader in 2018, now Jordan is quick to say he’s excited for a McCarthy speakership.

Some Freedom Caucus members privately see Jordan as the only member whose clout could rally the entire group behind a McCarthy opponent. Other conservatives, when asked about the Freedom Caucus' disinterest in directly taking on McCarthy, simply pointed to a GOP unified behind him.

“I don't think there's anything newsworthy there,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), a Jordan ally. “I often say it appears to me that Kevin has surpassing support among [the] conference to be speaker."

The burgeoning Freedom Caucus position on a 2023 speakership vote is trickling down to likely future members. A House GOP candidate who met with the group's lawmakers earlier this year summarized the Freedom Caucus recommendation as: Vote your conscience. If you support McCarthy, go ahead. If you don’t, that's also fine.

This GOP candidate, sharing candid views on condition of anonymity, expressed surprise at the Freedom Caucus' choose-your-own-adventure approach to the speakership vote.

Of course, the biggest caveat in conference dynamics remains the size of the GOP majority after the midterms. Until House Republicans see how many seats they pick up in November, it's difficult to definitively predict how they'll see McCarthy.

A smaller-than-expected gain — and particularly a shocking failure to take the House — would cause a firestorm over who was to blame. And McCarthy, at the top of the leadership food chain, would take the brunt of the finger-pointing.

“A lot depends on the actual numbers,” said Freedom Caucus member Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.). “There are some people who prefer a different candidate, [but] they haven't really focused on or coalesced around anybody.”

Griffith said the group also recognizes that McCarthy has listened and shown more goodwill to the Freedom Caucus than any GOP leader since it launched in 2015. Should McCarthy stop hearing the group out, Griffith added, “that could change things.”

Notably, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) declined to address the topic when asked about challenging McCarthy. The occasionally tumultuous relationship between the minority leader and the MAGA firebrand has appeared to steady in recent months; last week, she attended McCarthy's GOP agenda rollout in Pennsylvania and sat happily behind his shoulder on stage.

The Freedom Caucus' coolness to a McCarthy challenger doesn't mean they're lacking demands.

Some in the group are even fully sidestepping questions about their support next year as they push for the conference to vote on a rules package before any leadership elections are held. That plan was first reported by the Washington Examiner, which also revealed other concessions the group is seeking: ending earmarks; diversifying the GOP steering committee typically stocked with leadership allies; and enacting a “majority of the majority” rule that states no legislation should come up without majority support within the conference.

Perhaps the key tenet of any Freedom Caucus-approved House rulebook is restoring the motion to vacate the chair — the very procedural maneuver used to oust one of McCarthy’s predecessors.

When asked about directly challenging McCarthy, Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) pivoted to that list.

“I can't speak to any of that,” Perry said of the leadership outlook, noting that the “Freedom Caucus is going to be a part of that. But … we're really focused on the rules package right now. And likely anybody that we would support for anybody in any position in leadership, we're going to want to discuss that in-depth and in a meaningful way.”

Reps. Bob Good (R-Va.) and David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) copied their group's chair in redirecting questions about a McCarthy challenge to their focus on the next Congress' rules package.

"There's almost a maturity that's come from the Freedom Caucus saying: Our job is to legislate,” said Schweikert.

Leadership, meanwhile, hasn’t tipped its hat on the rules matter.

Reps. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) and Chip Roy (R-Texas) asked McCarthy about it during last week's GOP conference meeting, according to a person familiar with the back-and-forth, and McCarthy responded that members should focus on getting through the runup to the midterms.

And Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) publicly echoed that message when asked about the Freedom Caucus’ rules push.

“You see this every two years. There is always a robust discussion about what the rules should be. Again, we can’t put the cart before the horse — we have to win a majority to have that ability to have that discussion,” Scalise told reporters last week. “We are well aware of some of the things they’ve proposed.”

That circumspect reply is especially valuable given Freedom Caucus members haven’t decided whether the motion to vacate the chair would be a deal-breaker to their support for leadership contenders. Should the group vote as a unit, it could force a close speakership election past the first ballot or even deadlock the contest outright.

Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said there's “definitely some red lines — especially vacating the chair. That is a red line.” But she declined to say if the group would mount a bid against McCarthy, responding that “we'll see.”

While Boebert has publicly criticized McCarthy at various times, even suggesting Donald Trump should be speaker in the past, she has privately expressed more allegiance to the California Republican behind closed doors, according to two Republicans familiar with her remarks.

Good called the power to force a speakership eviction "a really important part of that rules package” but also avoided any rigid insistence.

“If everything else that I outlined was agreed to — again, I don't think we want to come and say: ‘oh, these are absolute,’” Good said. “These are not scripture.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the state Rep. Lauren Boebert represents.
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It’s a race for House GOP No. 3 next year — but a lopsided one

The race for House Republicans’ No. 3 leadership spot next year is already taking shape: It’s Rep. Byron Donalds, one of two Black conference members, versus sitting conference chair Elise Stefanik.

“I think races are healthy,” the first-term Floridian said in an exclusive interview, saying his plan “hasn’t changed” despite Stefanik’s formal confirmation that she’s seeking reelection in leadership after flirting with a bid for whip next year. “Competition is a healthy thing.”

“At the end of the day, the members want us to make sure that the best person can represent the conference at a time where we're up against some of the worst policies this country's ever seen,” Donalds added. “And we have to reverse course immediately, and I think I have a unique ability to help with that.”

Donalds spoke an hour after Stefanik announced she would seek re-election to the conference chair role should Republicans win the majority in November as expected. Her decision — despite a past pledge to conservative skeptics that she’d only serve one Congress — came as no surprise to some in the GOP, given the possibly crowded future battle for majority whip and her potentially blocked path to the Education and Labor Committee’s gavel next year.

And Stefanik now boasts broad support within the conference, winning praise from centrists and conservatives alike for her stewardship of House GOP messaging after leaders anointed her to replace Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). Many House Republicans have said for months that the New Yorker would coast to reelection as No. 3 leader if she chose to run again — which leaves Donalds as an unlikely aspiring spoiler of Stefanik’s recoronation.

The 43-year-old, a member of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus with a background in banking and insurance, didn’t exactly hide his plans to seek the spot. After POLITICO first reported last month that Donalds was weighing a run for conference chair and then first reported a Thursday reception to kick off his leadership bid, Stefanik’s silence about her own future got scrambled and she confirmed her run.

“It appears that way,” Donalds said when asked if he saw his own moves influencing Stefanik to go public. “My intention wasn't to force a decision by Elise. It's something where there were other members asking me.”

He has hired Nicholas Raineri, a former aide to conservative Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) who’s also advised the centrist GOP Main Street Caucus, as a special adviser to help with member outreach in the conference chair race. Donalds also said he met Monday with former President Donald Trump — whom Stefanik made her name defending during his first impeachment — but declined to discuss the nature of their lunch, beyond the fact that the conference chair race came up.

If Donalds can break through, he’d help the GOP conference make good on its long-held goals of more diverse representation, burnished through active recruitment of candidates of color. But he’s a long shot at best in the race.

Stefanik has powerful allies in her corner, with the entire slate of senior leadership supporting her reelection as No. 3: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), National Republican Congressional Chair Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and Conference Vice Chair Mike Johnson (R-La.) are all supporting her second bid.

“I am proud to have unified the entire Republican Conference around our country in crisis message and shattered fundraising records as House GOP Conference Chair raising over $10M for candidates and committees this cycle,” Stefanik said in a Tuesday statement.

And some Republicans aren’t thrilled by Donalds’ decision to challenge her. One senior GOP lawmaker, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, called it a “needless fight” at a time when the party should be focused on winning enough seats this fall to bring a workable majority to the next Congress.

This senior Republican asked what Stefanik has “done wrong to deserve to be bounced,” adding: “It's really important, before you seek a leadership position, to seek counsel — and to seek wide counsel — to understand the consequences of engaging in conference politics.”

A person close to Stefanik said she has already locked up two-thirds support among the conference, projecting confidence in her victory. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a member of the House GOP campaigns team, said he’s with her.

“Everybody can run if they want to. But I think Elise has done a tremendous job,” Armstrong said. “I'm really impressed and she's gonna be a big part of why we win back to the majority … I think she deserves the chance to do the majority.”

That leaves Donalds hoping to pick up support among Freedom Caucus members, his fellow Florida delegation members and incoming members-elect. He said Stefanik has "done a good job" but his choice is "not really about Elise," touting his ability to appeal to "people who typically are not Republicans."

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a member of the Freedom Caucus, declined to say how he would vote until he speaks to every candidate but expressed the desire for the pro-Trump group to have more representation in leadership.

Donalds is “special, because he’s in the Freedom Caucus,” Norman said.

Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry (R-Pa.) declined to say if he would support Donalds but called his leadership bid “very interesting” and “a positive sign for the whole conference.”

Another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), said he’s backing Donalds and subtly alluded to past criticism Stefanik took from the right for her history of centrist votes by saying he’d “love to see a conservative” in the role.

Both Stefanik and Donalds would bring their own liabilities to a post that attracts more attention in the House’s majority party.

Stefanik’s stumbles this Congress have included endorsing controversial congressional hopeful Carl Paladino, who lost his primary, and a tweet her aides deleted from the House GOP account that blasted former Trump aide Sarah Matthews for testifying before the Jan. 6 committee — while Matthews worked for a sitting member.

Even so, no members publicly describe those moves as relevant to the conference chair race.

Donalds, for his part, has made controversial arguments, including a CNN interview where he defended his reasons for not getting the Covid vaccine. He and a fellow conservative, Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.), also stoked the ire of conference colleagues by claiming that GOP members voted for a bill that would create a vaccine database, despite that legislation's stated safeguards against government tracking.

And while her leadership bid might appear to break her previous term limit pledge, hardly a rare move for an ambitious lawmaker in either party, Stefanik’s team is now denying that she made any such promise after months of declining to comment on the matter.

“She never committed to only running for one term," Stefanik's chief of staff Patrick Hester said in a statement.

Donalds' allies make their own affirmative case for his candidacy, noting that he’s embraced TV appearances on less friendly programs than conservative standards — think MSNBC and CNN — in order to rebut Democrats on issues like critical race theory. Those choices help set him apart, Donalds' backers say, as Stefanik increasingly provides special access to conservative or otherwise friendly media.

But Donalds himself has a simpler pitch for leadership: He talks about converting to the GOP later in his life.

“I found conservatism 14 years ago. And I found it because the policies I saw coming out of Washington were not going to help America. And I think that that perspective and that background can only help our ranks grow as a party,” Donalds said.

“The members know that I'm easily one of the best on Capitol Hill to do it.”

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House GOP rallies to Trump after Mar-a-Lago search, vows to probe FBI in 2023

The House GOP leaped Monday night to denounce the FBI search of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home, with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowing to investigate the Justice Department should Republicans take back the chamber this fall as expected.

"I've seen enough," McCarthy tweeted hours after Trump confirmed that his Florida resort was searched by federal officials. Using the same term the former president did in his own statement on the raid — "weaponization" — to describe DOJ's actions, the California Republican and frontrunner for speaker next year told Attorney General Merrick Garland to "preserve your documents and clear your calendar."

McCarthy followed a long line of rank-and-file House conservatives who took to social media to condemn the FBI search, most of them stalwart conservative allies of Trump. The quick outcry underscored that, even as some of their Senate counterparts edge away from Trump while a DOJ investigation into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack inches closer to his inner circle, House Republicans are prepared to hug the former president as tightly as ever.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the Republican Study Committee chair who is running for the majority whip role if Republicans flip the House this fall, quickly sought to paint the search as political while vowing House GOP-led hearings next year.

“Hunter Biden skates free while DOJ executes a political plot to destroy lives of political opponents,” tweeted Banks. “This is un-American and @Jim_Jordan led Judiciary Committee hearings in January can’t come soon enough!”

Both Banks and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who's set to become Judiciary panel chair in a House GOP majority, are close McCarthy allies and longtime Trump boosters dating to the former president's first impeachment. A Twitter account tied to Jordan also hit similar pro-Trump talking points, including anti-FBI sentiment that's flared among Trump supporters since the bureau's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Likening the Mar-a-Lago search to harassment of everyday citizens that's a fixture of Third World countries, the House Judiciary Committee GOP's account also echoed Trump’s Monday night statement by claiming: “The FBI knowingly deceived Americans about Russian 'collusion' for YEARS. Can’t trust them."

The law enforcement activity at Mar-a-Lago, according to two people familiar with the search, was tied to allegations that presidential records — including some with potentially classified information — were removed by Trump allies from the White House after the former president left office. But the nature of the documents that the government seized as part of the raid remains unclear.

While far less tied to McCarthy and party leadership, members of the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus were among the first to push their party to conduct oversight of the FBI's search. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the former head of the group, called for a probe that would examine “the viability of our federal law enforcement agencies that abuse their authorities for political purposes.”

Biggs also sought to compare the Mar-a-Lago search to the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi at the hands of his political enemies: “The only thing missing from the unprecedented FBI raid at President Trump’s home is Muammar Gaddafi’s sunglasses and cap on Joe Biden," the Arizonan tweeted.

Rank-and-file House Republicans are likely to face further questions about the Mar-a-Lago raid and its effect on their plans for a likely House takeover when they return to Washington for a planned Friday vote on Democrats' party-line climate, tax and health care bill.

While some senior Republicans privately brushed off conservatives' calls for an investigation, noting that they need to see proof the search was a stunt rather than a by-the-books act, McCarthy's tweet Monday night raises the political stakes of the moment considerably for the entire conference.

And even one prominent former Freedom Caucus member — turned potential Trump 2024 presidential primary rival — weighed in too.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attacked the Mar-a-Lago search on Twitter with similar Third World references, calling it “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the Regime’s political opponents" and adding a dig at Democrats for seeking to boost IRS enforcement to help pay for their domestic agenda.

"Banana Republic,” he tweeted.

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Markwayne Mullin takes his latest risk: a Senate bid

When Markwayne Mullin sees a problem, he tries to tackle it. Sometimes literally.

The 44-year-old Oklahoma Republican’s tendency to run head-first toward threats hasn’t always helped him during his House career, and could complicate his run for Senate. Mullin’s bid to enter Afghanistan for an evacuation mission following the Biden administration’s botched military withdrawal there last year, for example, didn’t sit well with a military already dealing with enough crises without lawmakers willfully endangering themselves.

He was also the first House member to join the Capitol Police in responding to pro-Trump rioters trying to break into the chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, though he voted not to certify 2020 election results. Then there was the physical confrontation at last year’s House GOP retreat between Mullin, a former mixed martial arts fighter, and a man who had verbally accosted Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo).

The man in question “tried to take off” after showing up at the Orlando hotel where GOP lawmakers were staying and calling Boebert “threatening and vulgar and disgusting” names, Mullin said in a wide-ranging interview. So Mullin pulled the man to the ground as he tried to leave the complex: “I drug [sic] him back and let the police take it from there.”

Mullin would easily win the crowded Republican primary to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) if it were based solely on who voters might want to hang out with. As it is, the fifth-term daredevil is facing real competition from other candidates, including Inhofe’s former chief of staff. Still, he’s leaning into his black belt in jiujitsu and his spot in Oklahoma’s National Wrestling Hall of Fame, releasing a recent campaign ad titled “You don’t want to fight with him.”

And he’s opening up in typical freewheeling style about his highest-profile moment on the national stage: his off-the-books attempt to enter Afghanistan during the U.S. withdrawal last summer in order to evacuate a family from the war-torn country.

Mullin said he coordinated that effort, funded through private donors, with State Department and Pentagon officials. But as he explained it, he started hitting obstacles that he blames on the U.S. government and, in response, cut off communications with them.

Shortly after he went dark, Mullin said, came news reports that he was missing — including one broadcast that showed his picture and described him as a missing congressman carrying a large bag of cash. The published reports on his attempts to enter Afghanistan, he asserted, put a target on his back and ultimately forced him to abandon his attempted rescue.

In characteristically uncensored style, Mullin is anything but coy about who he blames for leaking his location. The White House, he said, didn’t want him showing in real time that American citizens, such as the family he tried to help, were left behind during the military’s exit from Afghanistan.

“Without question, they tried to kill me,” he said, alleging the White House deliberately put him at risk.

“All we were trying to do is just help get Americans out because we had the ability to do it. Why is that a bad thing?” Mullin added.

The White House referred questions about Mullin's version of events to the Pentagon, where spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement that the government was clear about its limited ability to support “uncoordinated travel to Afghanistan” and that it takes exception to “any suggestion” that it was not trying to help save lives. The State Department pointed to its clear warnings governing travel to Afghanistan; a spokesperson said “the brave men and women of the U.S. diplomatic corps and military worked around the clock” to protect and relocate Americans and Afghan allies last year. “Any statements to the contrary are not grounded in fact," the spokesperson added.

But the Republican, whose trip to the region alarmed officials in the moment and who blasted the State Department on Fox News after his return to the U.S., said he knew the risks when he set out. The father of six children, three adopted, had gone so far as to tell his wife Christie and two oldest sons that there was a good chance he wouldn’t be coming home.

And while Mullin has the backing of his Republican colleagues, some of them chafe privately at his propensity to pick a fight, no matter the underlying political dynamics.

Fellow Oklahoma GOP Rep. Stephanie Bice described Mullin as a “renegade,” acknowledging that his approach doesn’t always win him fans. Despite the controversy surrounding his Afghanistan trip, she said "it really goes to show that he just wanted to be helpful.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) put it simply: “He's intense. And he is always trying to figure out what he can fix or what he can do."

While Mullin said he has an itch to head to Ukraine amid the Russian invasion, he's staying stateside this time around.

Hailing from Cherokee Nation in eastern Oklahoma, Mullin is leaning on his rural rancher persona as well as his experience turning around a family plumbing business and generating hundreds of jobs in the state to distinguish himself in the GOP primary. As staunchly conservative as he is, having voted with Trump most of the time between 2017 and 2020, he's not considered among the conference's biggest acolytes of the former president and he doesn't belong to the House Freedom Caucus.

According to a polling memo conducted by Cygnal for Mullin’s campaign, Mullin is leading the other four other candidates in the primary by double digits.

His habit of putting himself in harm’s way while trying to be helpful dates back to his own first term. Another Oklahoma Republican, Rep. Tom Cole, recalled that during a 2013 tour of his hometown after tornadoes had torn through the area, Mullin decided to crawl "through all the rubble” to turn off a pipe shooting water into a damaged home.

Mullin brings his own unorthodox background to his work as a member of the House Intelligence Committee: He was among the House Republicans who in 2019 entered the chamber's secure intelligence facility, known as a “SCIF,” to break up the deposition of an official who was testifying as part of Democrats' impeachment inquiry into then-President Donald Trump’s contacts with Ukraine. Mullin doesn’t regret it, arguing that Democrats treated Trump poorly.

Mullin also won't directly respond to the conclusion some of his colleagues have drawn about another part of his pre-Congress background — that he once worked as an intelligence community contractor, giving him experience in dangerous situations.

Asked to elaborate on that assumption about his past, Mullin said only: “No."

He's more open about his defense of Boebert during last year's GOP retreat. After hearing the first-term Coloradan describe her encounter with the heckler, Mullin said he tackled the man in question and then turned the situation over to the Capitol Police, who were in the vicinity.

That wasn't the first time he's stood up for female colleagues, either. During a closed-door GOP conference meeting near the height of the #MeToo movement raising awareness of sexual harassment, Mullin stood up to warn his fellow male lawmakers about the way some of them were touching or talking to women in Congress, both members and staff.

Some GOP colleagues called that episode confusing. But Mullin suggested he was speaking to specific Republicans who were serving at the time, saying he also privately confronted those members and they are no longer serving in the chamber. (More than a half-dozen members of Congress retired or resigned during the 115th Congress amid allegations of sexual misconduct, including five House Republicans.)

“I just wanted to let people know," Mullin said, "that that's not right.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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Stefanik starts quieting her doubters as House GOP messaging chief

The House GOP's messaging chief is starting to win over her doubters on the right by taking a different approach from her predecessors: directing rank-and-file members to conservative media outlets.

Since Rep. Elise Stefanik took over as House Republican Conference chair after Rep. Liz Cheney’s ouster, she's made a point to prioritize the megaphones of the party's base. Stefanik has hosted multiple events and press calls over the past few months that have cherry-picked attendance lists.

She holds weekly streamed news conferences, alongside colleagues, but her office at times restricts others' invitations solely to conservative media, even excluding certain reporters from outlets whose coverage has miffed them. In one case, a media call focused on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection featured a host of GOP-friendly presences, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich — now a Fox News pundit — as well as reporters from outlets such as Newsmax and the Daily Caller.

Her handling of the role is paying off with some of the same conservatives who were hesitant about her initial bid for the conference's No. 3 post, given her centrist background before becoming a Donald Trump ally during his first impeachment trial.

“She has been good. She's been fair,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus. “I didn't vote for her, but she’s done well.”

Other colleagues, including senior Republicans, said they weren’t aware of Stefanik's recent shift.

During a leadership retreat earlier this year in Florida, Stefanik chastised the “mainstream media” and encouraged members to talk more to conservative press, an urging that irritated some members who felt that goal undercut the value of speaking to a broader group of people, according to two Republicans in attendance.

She’s privately argued that Fox News has nearly the same viewership rates of CNN and MSNBC combined in her effort to promote the Republican-friendly station, according to those Republicans, as well as encouraging members to join right-wing social media sites such as GETTR to protest conservative claims of censorship by other platforms.

POLITICO is one of several outlets that has been excluded from media events in the last three months, alongside CNN. No explanation was given for the exclusion.

Stefanik's office declined to provide comment addressing the office's limitation of events to certain conservative media outlets.

She is hardly the first House GOP leader to lean into the party’s pro-Trump wing, but Stefanik's approach to conference messaging is notable given the conservative skepticism that greeted her initial leadership bid, and her encouragement to rank-and-file members to follow suit. On the conference’s right flank, uncertainty about elevating a New Yorker once known for a more centrist voting record has been evaporating.

“I think she's doing a good job with the messaging for the conference,” said freshman Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), another member of the Freedom Caucus. “If I had any concerns, I would be voicing those with the conference, and I haven't directed any concerns to Elise relative to her responsibilities.”

Still, not everyone is sold.

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), another member of the Freedom Caucus, threw his support behind Republican Study Chair Jim Banks (R-Ind.) as a future conference chair.

“I think who's really stood out to me lately on messaging is Jim Banks as RSC chair and in a way, the Republican Study Committee does a lot of the work that the conference in theory does. It's just a deeper dive,” Davidson said in an interview.

During her bid to replace Cheney, many House Republicans — whose ranks are predominantly white and male — privately said it was important to keep a woman in leadership. GOP leaders quickly rallied behind Stefanik, an ally of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and she pledged to vote with the general consensus of the conference. Stefanik had already attracted built-in support through her initiatives to elect more Republican women.

As she pursued a leadership spot, she sought to appease early doubters in the party's pro-Trump wing by telling colleagues she’d serve only one term as the head of conference messaging — while leaving the door open to running for another role. To some fellow Republicans, Stefanik expressed interest in serving as the party's top member on the House Education and Labor Committee come 2023.

But now, it’s unclear if Stefanik will stick to that game plan. Some colleagues believe she wants the whip position instead next Congress — that is, if Republicans win the majority and the job comes open as McCarthy ascends to speaker.

Davidson said he’d be surprised if Stefanik sought the conference chair or another role in leadership: “I'm positive that Elise was not disingenuous when she said she was planning to seek the [committee] chairmanship, so that'd be surprising for me to see her change her mind. … Last time I talked with Elise, she was planning on becoming chairwoman of Ed and Labor.”

Ali Black, a Stefanik spokesperson, said the New York Republican is “100 percent laser-focused” on serving as Republican Conference chair.

“Everyone who knows Elise — especially her constituents — know that she never takes an election for granted and always, always runs through the tape instead of measuring the drapes,” Black added.

Stefanik’s rightward move came with ample political rationale. Various Republicans have seen their stars rise in the party after hitching their wagons to Trumpism, which tends to involve more courtship of conservative media.

One case in point, former Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), was considered a moderate before Trump but pivoted dramatically after becoming an early ally of the former president. The one-time House Intelligence chair cut off communications with much of the press corps during the first year of the Russia investigation, particularly after receiving negative coverage over his handling of sensitive topics under the committee’s purview.

For years afterward, Nunes would decline to speak to mainstream media, sometimes claiming that he wouldn’t discuss committee business despite frequent appearances on Fox News and other conservative news outlets.

By the time he exited Congress, however, the California Republican — whom Stefanik served under on the committee — got more clear when he refused interviews: He would only talk to conservative press, he'd say.

Stefanik, however, is in a different position than Nunes as chief of messaging for the conference — one that exposes her to more scrutiny. Last month she criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi for limiting reporters’ access to members; Stefanik offered that reply after getting pressed about her use of proxy voting, which the GOP generally opposes despite its members’ frequent use of it.

And she’s exhibited some growing pains while taking a more conservative tack, both before and after becoming conference chair.

Stefanik last week dropped her support for what's known as the Fairness For All bill, a GOP compromise effort to balance LGBTQ rights with exceptions for religious freedom. She is the highest-ranking of the three Republicans who have pulled their names from the legislation, a decision that raised some eyebrows within the conference.

That follows Stefanik's reversal last Congress on the Equality Act — which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a push that the Fairness For All bill also attempts to tackle.

She had previously taken a handful of high-profile votes against Trump, siding with a small group of Republicans to terminate his controversial emergency declaration aimed at funding a proposed border wall. Trump allies' biggest concern with her past record, according to some of her colleagues, is her vote against the 2017 Republican tax cuts.

Nonetheless, this Congress Stefanik has received Trump’s endorsement to join House GOP leadership and shared the stage with him as a loyal supporter.

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Tom Emmer’s on a roll. He won’t say where to.

Tom Emmer has the hottest political hand in the House GOP right now. And if he can win a sizable majority this fall, he’ll have even more chips to cash in.

Halfway through his second cycle as House Republicans’ campaign chief, Emmer is managing to pull off a remarkable feat in the modern GOP: Even as it fissures over Donald Trump’s checkered legacy, Emmer is popular among its disparate wings. From leadership to conservatives to pro-impeachment centrists, all corners of the party have words of praise for the silver-haired Minnesotan.

It doesn’t hurt that Emmer helped stave off an anticipated loss of seats in 2020, to the surprise of many House Republicans. Now that the National Republican Congressional Committee has even more momentum this fall, with Democrats lining up for the exits ahead of an expected GOP takeover in the midterms, the biggest question may be what comes next for its chief.

Just don’t ask him — yet — how he plans to build on a November win.

“The only thing I have in mind right now is winning a majority. That's it,” Emmer said in an interview. “If you talk to some of my colleagues, I'm sure they told you that I'm a little adamant about staying focused in the moment.”

They did. As House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) put it, “the most important thing Tom's been vocal about is, nobody can get complacent.”

But many of his colleagues are betting Emmer won’t return as NRCC chair; it is unheard-of in recent years for any lawmaker to endure three cycles of the campaign grind. While the 60-year-old former city council member says he isn’t ruling anything out, fellow Republicans believe he’s eyeing the whip position — which could be the House GOP’s first open leadership role in years if the midterms go as expected — or another role in leadership.

The shuffle would go like this (despite Emmer’s disinterest in public drapes-measuring): House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy would become speaker in 2023, and Scalise would ascend to majority leader, leaving a likely crowded race for majority whip.

Joining Emmer as potential whip contenders are Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the current GOP conference chair; Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the party’s top Financial Services Committee member; and Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga), now chief deputy whip.

If Emmer wants to stay as campaigns chief, the job is seen as his to hold. Unless the GOP’s fortunes historically implode ahead of the midterms, though, House Republicans are expected to mount a second strong election showing under his leadership, which will no doubt bolster his street cred.

“I'm on the steering committee with him,” one House Republican member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity and referring to the group of senior members who dole out plum positions in the conference. “We're going to want to reward him, if there's something that he wants that he doesn’t have.”

That reward may or may not be the whip's job: Some Republicans mused that Emmer might not run if his ally McHenry seeks the role. Others are already starting to lay the groundwork to succeed Emmer at the NRCC, should he choose to leave a job that can bring as many pitfalls as it does benefits.

Emmer's handling of the NRCC helm helped burnish his reputation in the eyes of many Republicans. In interviews, members and aides praised his efforts to change the culture of the campaign arm, lift up its staff and do away with consultants to instead empower members to recruit “the best candidates.”

During his stewardship, the House GOP has worked to close the gap with Democrats’ ActBlue fundraising platform by boosting its own small-dollar online fundraising. The NRCC also has phased out one-size-fits-all ads in favor of more tailored hits at vulnerable Democrats.

Underpinning it all is Emmer's go-get-'em style, which colleagues likened to an energized hockey coach: He likes to win. Things didn't look like they were headed that way in 2020, with Trump floundering as a pandemic took hold and Democrats forecasting a blue wave. During the run-up to that election, Emmer dodged reporters trying to talk to him outside the House floor, telling colleagues he suspected a hit piece.

In the year-plus since the GOP picked up 15 seats while Trump lost, Emmer's fortunes have shifted dramatically.

Problems that once seemed cycle-defining are now a bit less daunting. Since Emmer warned the former presidentagainst backing primary challengers to the 10 House Republicans who supported impeachment, three of the 10 have decided against seeking reelection.

That doesn't mean the remaining seven, all of whom face primaries, won't prove challenging for an NRCC chief who has said the campaign arm won't get involved in intra-GOP contests.

He's previously said the party's internal push to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), tapped by Democrats for the Jan. 6 select committee, was not helpful to the GOP's big-tent messaging. And when asked if Cheney would be able to use the NRCC as a resource, should she pay dues like its other members, Emmer didn’t dismiss the idea.

“That's a big if, because she's chosen a different path. That's totally up to her, how she handles it,” he replied.

The NRCC chairmanship is “the toughest job you could have, because you have to say no to a lot of people ... the only way you can survive it well is by being really honest,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who serves on the campaign committee with Emmer.

Asked to reflect on what he learned from 2020, Emmer said he wished the GOP had cast a wider net for winnable seats. Even so, the Republican conference brought in 18 women and a record number of minority GOP members during this Congress, an advancement that Emmer hopes to build on this fall.

“It looks like a repeat of last cycle. Our bench looks even more diverse,” said freshman Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who serves at the NRCC and is one of the two Black House Republicans to join the House last year.

Emmer, for his part, said that the NRCC tried to “make sure that our candidates looked and sounded more like the districts they were going to represent” when he first assumed the position.

“If there was an issue” in the past with the party's candidate slate, Emmer said, “it was that we didn't do a good job of recruiting those people that show that diversity to this national stage. ... It worked last time.”

Now that he's proven what can work for the NRCC, and with a potential midterm success set to vault him further up the party's ranks, Emmer is ever the prototypical team-building coach. He won't get involved in agenda questions, saying, “I leave that to Kevin, I leave that to Elise and Steve,” referring to McCarthy, Scalise and Stefanik.

And even behind closed doors, he's playing his cards so close that his allies don't know his next move.

“I think I'm pretty close with him. He has never mentioned it. And he's focused on one thing right now,” Armstrong said. “It's the truth. It's also politically smart.”

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