A collection of powerful conservative groups is mounting an aggressive campaign to install Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan as House speaker or minority leader in the next Congress, according to a half-dozen sources with direct knowledge of the effort.
The bid to empower a rabble-rouser despised by much of the House Republican Conference will almost surely fall short. But success for the groups doesn’t necessarily require Jordan to end up in the top leadership spot.
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Their effort could deny California Rep. Kevin McCarthy the 218 votes needed to secure the speakership if Republicans retain the House majority — an outcome conservatives would cheer just as much. And if Republicans lose the majority, the groups intend to demand new leadership, which could wound McCarthy’s bid for minority leader.
The effort marks a rare instance of coordination among at least four prominent outside groups as well as a handful of smaller conservative groups with big nationwide followings. They include Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, Conservative Leadership Fund, Tea Party Patriots, and For America.
Leaders of the groups, including Ken Cuccinelli and Adam Brandon, have been making calls to lawmakers they’ve helped legislatively or politically in the past. The groups also are recruiting activists to attend town halls and press rank-and-file Republicans to get behind Jordan.
And on Sept. 26, more than 1,000 conservatives are expected to attend a Jordan-for-speaker rally — then hit up GOP offices to make their case for the Ohio Republican in person.
“I think we’ve reached the point where we’re just sort of tired of watching the dog chase the tail in the House,” said David Bozell, president of For America. “We’re tired of watching these guys not know what to do with the Senate, of not having a plan to get from A to B, of having no strategy.”
“Everyone knows that if Jim Jordan ran the House of Representatives, his agenda would be the agenda Republicans campaigned and won on,” said Brandon, FreedomWorks president. “Jordan would connect the grass roots back to the House majority.”
The organizations are influential among the conservative base and have an extensive network. FreedomWorks, for example, boasts a following of more than 6 million activists.
But it’s unclear how much sway they’ll have over the Republican Conference when it comes to choosing a successor to departing Speaker Paul Ryan. Leadership elections are typically an inside game — not a decision driven by the grass roots.
Conservative have agitated for years against GOP leaders they consider too accommodating, calling for their ouster with little success. Establishment figures have continued to lead the party, though conservatives did pressure Speaker John Boehner into retirement.
What’s more, Jordan has done little to help Republicans save their endangered House majority, some House Republicans argue. McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who’s also eyeing a promotion, have been been traveling the country raising money for vulnerable members.
“Where has Jordan gone?” one GOP member who’s been pressed by constituents about Jordan asked angrily.
Jordan has also alienated Republicans with his obstinate, hard-line tactics and refusal — in the view of many members — to do the concerted party-building work expected of leaders. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said Republicans need a leader who can represent the entire conference and “put the common good ahead of your own personal opinions.” While “very principled,” Jordan isn’t that person, Lucas added.
“He has a substantial following out in the countryside, but being speaker or, say, minority leader, that’s an inside-the-family issue,” Lucas said. “Outsiders can do all they want to do, but when the conference gets together after the election to make a big decision, it’s us in the room that make the call.”
Officials with the conservative groups say if they can help raise Jordan’s profile — pitching him as President Donald Trump’s House enforcer — they can garner national support and pressure lawmakers to reconsider.
It’s why they started coordinating several months ago to do just that, holding conference calls every few weeks to discuss strategy.
The groups’ lobbying has gone beyond leaning on members of the Freedom Caucus, Jordan’s core group of supporters. Several mainstream, traditional Republicans told POLITICO they’ve been pressed to support Jordan either by constituents or by leaders of the groups.
Part of that outreach includes asking members what they want in a leader, often with a pitch that Jordan would allow for a more bottom-up approach that would empower members. It also includes a promise that Jordan would stand up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Most legislative proposals need Democratic support to clear the chamber’s 60-vote threshold, and House Republicans have long fumed that the upper chamber is where their ideas go to die.
After officials with the outside groups present their argument to lawmakers, Jordan follows up himself. He’s been reaching out to members to gauge their support and expand his reach within the conference, several congressional sources said.
Still, garnering 218 votes for speaker would be nearly impossible for Jordan given his small, if enthusiastic, nucleus of support. But if Republicans lose the majority, the outside groups are hoping the president will insist on a leader who would go to the mat for him, especially if Democrats try to impeach him. Jordan is a former wrestler known for his attack-dog approach to politics.
“If you’re in the minority, how the hell does Kevin McCarthy help you bring back the majority?” Brandon said. “We’re going to get K Street and do more of the same dysfunctional crap that lost us the majority? That’s not a good message. So shake things up! You want to fire up the grass roots.”
But there are several complications. For one, Jordan was dogged this summer by a scandal at Ohio State University, where former wrestlers he coached in the 1980s and 1990s accused a onetime team doctor of sexually harassing and abusing them. Jordan adamantly denied turning a blind eye to mistreatment, and he seems to have weathered the controversy, but NBC News reported last month that the Department of Education is investigating the university’s response to the wrestlers’ allegations.
It is unclear how the investigation will affect Jordan, if at all.
Beyond that, there are other, more immediate factors that could undercut the conservatives’ cause. If Republicans lose the House, McCarthy would need only half the conference to become minority leader — a bar many rank-and-file Republicans think the Californian can clear.
McCarthy has been raising millions of dollars for vulnerable lawmakers, which they’re bound to remember when it comes time to elect their next leader. As the person who keeps the floor schedule, McCarthy has spent years helping members get their legislation passed, alliances that Jordan would not be able to match over the next several weeks.
Asked last week about his own work to protect the Republican majority, Jordan noted that he was headed to Des Moines, Iowa, to rally conservative activists at the Faith and Freedom Conference. He’s also planning a trip to North Carolina to help Rep. Ted Budd, a freshman lawmaker and fellow Freedom Caucus member facing a tough reelection.
“We’re traveling,” Jordan said, predicting that Republicans would keep the House.
His staff, however, would not provide more details about his campaign efforts.
Jordan’s defenders also argue that he helps with the midterms in another way: by rallying the base to get out and vote. He frequently appears on Fox News and has become a darling of the far right. During a rally for special election candidate Troy Balderson of Ohio several weeks ago, the crowd started cheering “speaker of the House” when Trump invited Jordan onstage.
Each of the activist groups is using its own resources to elevate Jordan in its own way. Bozell of For America, for example, has been leveraging the network of nearly 7 million followers to draw attention to Jordan.
“You’ll start to see those members that conservative groups wouldn’t necessarily have much impact with or target traditionally … those members will say … ‘I’ve got to pay attention [to Jordan],’” Bozell said. “‘Because whether or not I support Jim Jordan for speaker is the question I’m being asked by constituents.”