Perhaps it is the humidity, or maybe the surplus of people eager to serve as undertakers, but bodies tend to be buried quickly up in Washington.
Republican members of the U.S. House on Thursday are scheduled to elect a new majority leader to replace Eric Cantor, the Virginia congressman who only five days ago was soundly defeated by a little-known college professor with a tea party resume.
The House election is somewhat fixed. With the early vote, an advantage has been given to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, a member of Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team, whom Cantor has endorsed as his successor.
One Georgian, Tom Price of Roswell, and two Texans, Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, have looked at the race and demurred.
The geography is an important point. The leadership scramble has revealed House Republicans split not just by ideology, but by region. They may provide the foundation for GOP rule, but by week’s end, Southern Republicans again could be largely shut out of the top positions of power in their own chamber.
We may be spoiled. Twenty years ago, during the reign of Speaker Newt Gingrich, the South ruled the House Republican roost. Specifically, the triumvirate of the Georgian and two Texans, Dick Armey and Tom Delay.
Republicans from other regions howled, especially when it came to guns and abortion.
“There was a lot of resentment at some of the bills we voted on more than once,” said John Linder, the former Georgia congressman who headed up the House GOP recruitment effort under Gingrich – another important leadership post. Linder retired in 2011, and now lives in Myrtle, Miss.
It was a brand of tension that no longer exists. “On the environment — all of our Republicans in the Northeast left us and sided with the Democrats. There was constant anger over that,” Linder remembered.
But the Northeast is now a near-desert for Republicans. The South, still a growth region for the GOP during the Gingrich era, has been built out. Clout now lies in the hands of House Republicans who hail from areas where there are still seats to be won. Or lost.
Over the last week, U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, has become the voice of Southern frustration in Washington. “This is something I’ve been kind of hammering on for a while,” he said Friday.
If you count Texas and Florida, Southern Republicans make up 47 percent of the House GOP conference, Westmoreland said. Even without those two states, Deep South Republicans would still represent nearly a third of the party’s strength in the House.
The percentages aren’t reflected in the chairmanships of House committees or subcommittees, Westmoreland said. “There’s no correlation.”
But that’s not where the deficit is most glaring. “If you look at that total leadership structure, you can see how many are from the South,” the Georgia congressman said.
Boehner, of course, is from Ohio, a swing state. Cantor’s Virginia now qualifies as a blue state. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairman of the House GOP conference, is from Washington, another blue state. Greg Walden, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, is from Oregon.
Not until you come to Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, secretary of the House GOP conference, do you find a Deep South conservative, Westmoreland pointed out.
“You hear people talk – ‘I may be from a blue state, but I still have a red district,’ the congressman scoffed. “Yeah, you probably still do have a red district. But if your red district was in my red state, it would probably be purple at best.”
Region, like ideology, matters when decisions are made about what House bills will move, and which ones won’t. “When they sit down at that leadership table, their thinking — about how this country feels or what its priorities are — is coming from a different mindset than what is in the Deep South. Which is mostly conservative people,” Westmoreland said.
The topics of unions, agriculture, and especially entitlements are dividers. Votes thought too conservative may provoke Democratic opposition in swing states, but votes that smack of compromise are likely to provoke primary opponents in the South.
Westmoreland beat his primary opposition in May. In 2012, he had two opponents.
Southern Republicans in the House may be gelling into something close to an organized faction.
“We have been meeting as Southern states for probably three or four months – meeting and discussing how we can interject some of our views into the conference better,” Westmoreland said. “We’re not really a caucus. We’re not a formal group. It’s just a bunch of guys and girls that are just sitting down and talking.”
A Southern shut-out this week is likely to be interpreted as a rejection of the message sent by Cantor’s defeat, Westmoreland said. “A lot of our guys are going to just say, ‘Are they just brain dead? Did they not read the smoke signal?’”
Southern Republicans are looking at the possibility that Steve Scalise, R-La., might be elected House majority whip, replacing McCarthy in the House’s No. 3 leadership spot.
Westmoreland has his doubts that Scalise can survive the Thursday vote. But a day after our conversation, the Georgia congressman’s staff killed Washington talk that he would run for the whip position himself, quoting their boss thusly:
“Currently my focus is on … the November midterms, and the efforts to create the largest Republican majority in decades. If there are future opportunities at the [National Republican Campaign Committee] or within the conference after November, I would like to be a part of that discussion.”