Battle lines drawn in three-way race for House Republicans' No. 3 spot

WASHINGTON — The House Republican leadership race generating the most buzz inside GOP circles isn’t whether or not Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will be elected speaker should control of the chamber flip after this fall’s election.

Rather, it’s a three-way battle further down the pecking order featuring two Republicans who, perhaps more than anyone else in this Congress, have carefully worked to mold the House GOP’s future, and a third who counts a powerful Republican leader as an ally.

Battle lines are already being drawn in the contest to see who will serve as the GOP whip in the next Congress, the No. 3 position in House Republican leadership. Reps. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm; Jim Banks of Indiana, chair of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus with more than 150 members; and Drew Ferguson of Georgia, the current chief deputy whip handpicked by the current GOP whip, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, are all vying for the job. Each contender seeks to brandish his chances by fundraising and campaigning for members across the country in the closing weeks of the 2022 midterm election campaign.

It’s a position that, assuming Republicans regain control of the lower chamber, will fall third in line behind McCarthy, from California, and Scalise, who is likely to serve as majority leader in a Republican-controlled House. Neither man has drawn a challenger.

Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York had considered joining the crowded whip race but ultimately decided to run for re-election as GOP conference chair, the No. 4 spot in the majority. Her decision guarantees that the top three GOP leadership slots will all be occupied by white men, even as their conference has grown more diverse in recent cycles.

All of the leadership races will be determined after the November election via a closed-door vote of the Republican membership.

Party whips are tasked with keeping members in line on crucial votes, working to ensure as few members as possible break with the position of leadership — no small feat in a conference that in recent years has been difficult to unify.

The last time Republicans held the majority, from 2011 to 2018, the unruly, hard-right House Freedom Caucus caused fits for Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, and derailed McCarthy’s first bid for speaker in 2015. The new whip will need to corral Freedom Caucus and majority-making moderates alike to ensure Republicans can fund the government, hike the debt ceiling and rally behind a unifying message that will help them win back the White House in 2024.

“Both Jim Banks and Tom Emmer are good friends. … They’re going to have their case to make and we feel like we’ve got a great case to make,” Ferguson said in an interview. “The whip operation’s not just about counting votes; whip operation’s about getting votes. And we can do that.”

In conversations with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers, aides and operatives, Emmer and Banks appear to be the top two contenders, though Ferguson is not being written off. In many respects, the choice will boil down to rewarding Emmer for helping Republicans exceed expectations in the 2020 cycle by picking up 15 seats and recognizing that he also has built up relationships — and fundraised for — members and potential incoming freshmen this term, or turning to Banks, an ambitious three-term congressman who, from his perch atop the Republican Study Committee, has sought to craft a Donald Trump-inspired policy and messaging agenda for the party.

For now, the candidates say they’re keeping their focus on the Nov. 8 elections before shifting attention to leadership races. “We have to keep the main thing the main thing,” Ferguson said.

“Chairman Emmer is laser focused on winning in November,” Michael McAdams, the communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. “He’s asked his colleagues for the opportunity to make an argument for Majority Whip once Republicans retake the House and fire Nancy Pelosi.”

Banks’ office declined an interview request or to provide comment.

Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., has been surveying members and claims Emmer, whom he is backing, has “critical mass” to win the vote on the initial ballot.

“How does anybody argue against promoting a guy who helped us back in the majority as NRCC chairman?” he said. “I like Jim Banks. I like Drew Ferguson. But at the end of the day, the votes simply aren’t there for either Drew or Jim.”

Emmer’s fortunes may be intertwined with how well the party does Nov. 8, as some Republicans suggested. They need a net gain of just five seats to win back the House but are aiming for a much bigger cushion.

“I think if we pick up 30 or 40 seats, I think that empowers Emmer,” said one House Republican who has worked closely with him. “Listen, if our recruits that he spent a lot of money on and heavily invested in, if they don’t work out and we only pick up 10, it’s tougher for him. So I think Tom is directly tied to how we do in the election.”

One GOP leader who signaled possible support for Emmer is Stefanik.

“Everyone should be focused 100% on winning the majority, and I have been very proud to work closest with Tom Emmer to win the majority,” Stefanik said in a statement. “If we have a big night, I think it’s going to be really important as to who really made sure all their effort was on winning the majority.”

Banks, meanwhile, has influential MAGA allies like Donald Trump Jr., hired Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s son as his communications director, and led a group of Republican Study Committee members to meet with former President Donald Trump at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey shortly after the FBI conducted a search at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida this summer. Banks is also the only one of the three who voted to overturn the 2020 election results. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., personally blocked him from serving as the top Republican on the Jan. 6 committee after he suggested he would investigate Democrats for their response to the attack.

Any public voicing of support from Trump could affect the race, though some close to the contest said they did not expect the former president to make a significant impact on the election, which is conducted by secret ballot.

Republicans close to Banks, a Navy reservist and Afghanistan War veteran, say they’ve been impressed by his national security credentials, support for the Pentagon and focus on military and economic threats from Beijing, detailed in countless policy papers and press releases pumped out by Republican Study Committee staff.

“Should Rep. Banks consider running for whip, he would be a strong candidate given his record as a veteran and vocal advocate on the House Armed Services Committee," said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., an RSC member and fellow vet.

But while Banks holds a more conservative voting record than his rivals, some Republicans have been turned off by his rapid ascent and what they view as his naked ambition and a lack of conviction. Critics point out Banks previously praised Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and teamed with her on 2019 legislation to prevent the Trump administration from withdrawing from Afghanistan, before turning against her; defended former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Trump and Russian interference; and was critical of Trump’s efforts in 2018 to enact sweeping tariffs before he embraced so-called economic populism of the right.

But Banks had a clear break with Cheney after she voted to impeach Trump last year: He campaigned in Wyoming and fundraised for Harriet Hageman, who defeated Cheney in the GOP primary, while his rivals did not support punishing or primarying Cheney. And at the end of the Mueller probe, Banks said Trump had been “exonerated from the witch hunt over collusion” while calling on the president to hold Russia accountable for election meddling. Once a fierce critic of tariffs, as was much of the Republican Party, Banks this year blasted President Joe Biden for lifting tariffs on Chinese solar energy imports, an industry he said relied on “Uyghur slave labor.”

If Banks falls short in the whip race, some Republicans believe he will run for Senate, jumping in the race to replace Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who plans to run for governor in 2024.

One GOP strategist who has known Banks for years says he is a tried-and-true social conservative who is comfortable speaking on those issues. But this person said Banks’ shift away from traditional conservative economics and tight embrace of Trump has been as dizzying as it is “calculated,” as he quickly ascends through the conference.

“I think he’s unknowable,” this person said, noting that he is not counting out Banks to win the race.

One GOP aide added: “He’s not done anything that’s proven himself to be someone who helps members … and so that becomes a huge problem for him.”

Should any of the camps turn the race into a mudslinging affair, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., shared a warning.

“Quite frankly, and this is me, personally, if that starts happening, that’s the kind of thing that will turn me off,” he said. “This is a member-on-member race involving three very good friends of mine. And there will be backlash if that happens.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com