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Politics

Scalise, a McCarthy rival, seeks to unite Republicans to take his place

Nature

When Harriet M. Hageman announced her primary challenge against Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming in 2022, House Republican leaders quickly endorsed her attempt to oust a colleague whose condemnations of former President Donald J. Trump had of her an outcast in her own party.

But one member of the leadership has remained particularly silent: Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican. He viewed supporting Ms. Hageman as a violation of what he calls his 11th commandment, borrowed from President Ronald Reagan: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” » He waited until Ms. Hageman had defeated Ms. Cheney to give her his support.

Mr. Scalise, a longtime rival of former President Kevin McCarthy, is now preparing his own bid for the job. He presented himself as the man uniquely positioned to unite Republicans at a time when they are deeply divided and demoralized after last week’s historic ouster of Mr. McCarthy.

“We are so divided; he can unite this Congress,” Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas said of Mr. Scalise.

His candidacy is the culmination of a steady political rise for a deeply conservative Republican who once described himself, according to a local columnist, as “like David Duke without the baggage.”

In Louisiana, Mr. Scalise represents the First Congressional District, a place where the fossil fuel industry rules and conservatism is rooted in the myth of rugged individualism — and, at least in some quarters, in political of racial resentment. It was there that Mr. Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was elected to the state Legislature in 1989.

Mr. Scalise has suggested that his life and political career have been influenced by these forces. He made the remark while comparing himself to Mr. Duke to Stephanie Grace, now a columnist for The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate newspaper, when she first met Mr. Scalise in the 1990s. She wrote that Mr. Scalise’s view “was that the current governing philosophy espoused by Duke was not far removed from what was becoming mainstream conservative thinking, with its suspicion of taxes, reservations and safety net programs such as welfare.”

(Over the weekend, Ms. Grace qualifiedly approved Mr. Scalise’s appointment as speaker.)

Decades later, those views are more powerful than ever in the Republican Party as Mr. Scalise faces for president Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, founder of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus.

Mr. Scalise managed to escape even though he was diagnosed only weeks ago with blood cancer, for which he is undergoing treatment. His supporters insist that this has not diminished his ability to do the job.

A key part of Mr. Scalise’s pitch to his colleagues is that he is a fundraising powerhouse, second only to Mr. McCarthy. He raised nearly $170 million during his congressional career to help Republicans win elections. During the 2022 midterm elections, Mr. Scalise spent 112 days on the road campaigning for lawmakers and candidates. Over the past five years, his office said, he has given $7.2 million directly to Republican members and candidates and transferred $50 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Kevin McCarthy was fabulous in bringing together the resources our conference needed,” said Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri. “The only person behind it is Steve Scalise.” Ms. Wagner, a longtime ally of Mr. Scalise, said she accompanied him on fundraisers in which he visited more than a dozen districts in three days.

Over the past year, Mr. Scalise has been marginalized by Mr. McCarthy, who privately described him to colleagues as ineffective, sidelined and reluctant to take positions, and excluded him from any important decision-making.

The dynamic was frustrating for Mr. Scalise at the time. But now his allies say his failure to be involved in the debt ceiling negotiations with President Biden, which ultimately proved to be a catalyst for Mr. McCarthy’s downfall, could make of him a viable option for far-right members who rebelled. against the former speaker.

While most far-right Republicans are expected to support Mr. Jordan on Wednesday when they have to choose a presidential candidate, Mr. Scalise implores them to support him as their second choice. Under current Republican conference rules, whoever gets a majority in that secret ballot vote will be the party’s nominee when the full House meets to elect a new president, now expected Wednesday.

Legislators allied with Mr. Jordan are trying to raise that threshold to unanimity, which would put Mr. Scalise at a disadvantage. For now, however, Mr. Scalise told right-wing lawmakers that while he wishes he could be their first choice, he hopes that if he appears as a candidate, they will at least vote for him in the room.

His argument to other Republicans is simpler. Mr. Jordan, who was endorsed by Mr. Trump for president, would have a harder time helping vulnerable Republicans win in districts won by President Biden in 2020, especially when Mr. Jordan backed primary opponents of 12 sitting members of Congress.

Mr. Scalise arrived at the Capitol in 2008, after winning a special election to replace Rep. Bobby Jindal, who was elected governor.

A political animal since childhood, he came to Washington intending to be a part of everything: He joined the Bible study group and the congressional baseball team, where he played in a Louisiana baseball jersey State University and purchased tickets for all of its staff members. and their children. He lobbied for a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he became a strong ally of the oil and gas industry. And he soon became recruitment chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, then chairman of the Republican Study Committee, then the largest group of conservative Republicans in the House.

Mr. Scalise, the first person in his family to earn a college degree, grew up in Jefferson Parish, a suburb just outside New Orleans, an area where the population exploded in the latter half of the last century as white residents fled desegregation. city. Born into a family of Sicilian immigrants, Mr. Scalise used to tell staff members stories about how his ancestors worked in the sugar fields of Garyville, Louisiana.

His rise in Washington was rapid. In 2014, he reached the third position in the House. Then a blogger reported that as a state lawmaker in 2002, Mr. Scalise had spoken at a meeting of a white nationalist group founded by Mr. Duke, a revelation that threatened to derail his career policy.

Under intense pressure from Democrats to withdraw, Mr. Scalise said the speech was a “mistake that I regret,” saying he did not realize what the group was when he agreed the invitation. At the time, he received a significant sign of support from his old friend Cedric Richmond, then a congressman from New Orleans, who is black.

“I don’t think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body,” Mr. Richmond said then. (Mr. Richmond could not be reached for comment on Mr. Scalise’s candidacy for president.)

In 2020, Mr. Scalise voted to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol, breaking with a majority of his party, including Mr. Jordan.

Yet Mr. Scalise more often than not sides with the Republicans. He pushed for legislation in 2015 that resulted in the repeal of a 40-year-old ban on oil exports, giving the oil industry a huge victory. He also played a major role in 2017 in getting Republicans to pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut law that primarily benefited big businesses, multimillionaires and other wealthy individuals. A supporter of Mr. Trump, he voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and for months he steadfastly promoted the lie that the election was stolen.

In 2017, Mr. Scalise was seriously injured when a gunman, upset by Mr. Trump’s election, opened fire on members of the Republican congressional baseball team during a practice. The bullet tore through his internal organs, shattered his bones and caused significant internal bleeding, leaving Mr. Scalise in critical condition.

He had to undergo several surgeries and months of work at an inpatient rehabilitation center to learn how to walk again. He returned to the Capitol three months later, walking gingerly with two canes.

“I’m definitely a living example that miracles really do happen,” he said at the time. Today, Mr. Scalise appears almost completely recovered. With the help of a shoe with a raised sole, his gait is now normal.

In August, Mr. Scalise announced that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer but planned to return to Washington to continue working while he underwent several months of treatment.

His colleagues said part of his talk in recent days was that the treatment was going better than his doctors had expected and that he was in shape to do the job.

“They changed his treatment and reduced it to three months from six,” said Ms. Wagner, a close friend. Mr. Scalise’s wife, Jennifer, and his doctors, she added, “agreed that he was more than healthy enough to take on this challenge.”

It is unclear what toll Mr. Scalise’s illness and treatment have taken on him. He began wearing a heavy-duty mask at news conferences and in the House, a striking change for a Republican who avoided face coverings as the coronavirus pandemic raged, once calling federal mask mandates a “political theater of masking Democrats”.

Richard Fausset contributed reporting from Atlanta.

Nature
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