Top conservative lawmaker Jim Jordan may run for House speaker — and some Republicans are worried

Key Points
  • Rep. Jim Jordan, a leading member of the House Freedom Caucus, has been privately courting lawmakers about throwing his hat into the ring for House speaker.
  • Some GOP lawmakers are encouraging him to run while others believe he doesn't stand a chance against frontrunner Rep. Kevin McCarthy.
  • Rep. Steve Scalise could enter the race if McCarthy is forced to drop out due to pressure from Jordan and other conservatives, sources say, prompting concerns about divisions within the caucus.
Rep. Jim Jordan
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Rep. Jim Jordan, a leading member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has been privately courting lawmakers about a bid to succeed Paul Ryan as House speaker, according to sources on Capitol Hill.

Yet many Republican lawmakers and political operatives believe Jordan's relative lack of fundraising prowess gives him little chance to compete against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the frontrunner to succeed Ryan. There are also concerns that a Jordan campaign would create divisions within the caucus and leave an opening for another lawmaker to jump into the race.

Some House GOP members, in a series of dinners and meetings, have encouraged Jordan, a staunch conservative from Ohio, to make a run for speaker, according to lawmakers, aides and political strategists who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity.

A spokeswoman for Jordan did not return repeated requests for comment, but the lawmaker told PBS on Tuesday that he wants to be in the mix.

"If and when there's a race for speaker, I plan to be part of that conversation," Jordan said. He did not elaborate.

Behind the scenes, Jordan has continued to express interest in making a move for the top job but hasn't made a final decision. Indeed, he may instead opt to run for another position in the leadership, sources said. It's unclear what other role he may want to pursue in the new Congress after the 2018 midterm elections — and it's not certain Republicans will hold onto their majority in the House.

Ryan under fire

The discussions about Jordan's possible ascension come as Ryan and House GOP leadership are under fire for recent policy issues. The Republican-led House failed to pass a farm bill. The House GOP leadership has also struggled to keep peace with moderate Republicans who are pushing legislation that would protect hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, also known as "Dreamers."

Conservatives, including Jordan, are trying to block any such proposal. Rather, he and other hardliners want to move ahead with a vote on an immigration bill that would include border wall funding, security and enforcement provisions and limiting Dreamers to obtaining three-year work permit renewals.

The farm bill, a measure that is usually voted on twice a decade, is meant to maintain farm subsidies. This time, it was written to impose strict work requirements on food aid recipients. The bill failed to pass the floor by a 213 to 198 vote, leaving Republicans stunned.

Ryan's preferred successor, California Republican McCarthy, was in the middle of the battle on Capitol Hill, leading to calls from some conservatives for a change in leadership, starting with the speaker.

"There's continued frustration on immigration and the fact that we couldn't get the farm bill done," a lawmaker told CNBC. "That frustration always gets directed toward leaders. It's a law of nature."

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (L) (R-WI) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) (R-CA)
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Doubts about Jordan's fundraising ability

Some people who attended meetings with Jordan told CNBC that they aren't convinced he has enough fundraising prowess to fill Ryan's shoes or match McCarthy.

McCarthy has raised millions for Republicans through his joint fundraising committee, the McCarthy Victory Fund and his affiliated PAC, the Majority Committee PAC. He's also teamed up with Ryan at GOP fundraising events across the country.

So far in the 2018 election cycle, the McCarthy Victory Fund has pumped in $3.4 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The NRCC has raised more than $10 million this cycle, records show.

Jordan, on the other hand, has raised $327,442 for his own campaign while the political action committee he founded, the House Freedom Fund, has raised $2.3 million. Most of the PAC's funds have gone toward candidates who support the Freedom Caucus' cause, which includes strict immigration control and cuts in spending.

According to Federal Election Commission records, the PAC donated thousands of dollars to Arizona Republican Debbie Lesko, who recently won a special election for a House seat.

Concerns about a divided GOP

Even though McCarthy is seen as the favorite, a Jordan run for speaker could also create divisions within the congressional GOP and actually hurt McCarthy's chances, according to aides who have been involved with past leadership elections.

Jordan could siphon conservative votes from McCarthy, for instance. That, in turn, could leave the House GOP undecided on who should be the next speaker, raising the possibility that the California Republican could drop out under pressure from the Freedom Caucus.

That could turn into an opening for the House majority whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana. He has said he would not run against McCarthy for speaker but has not publicly ruled out running against another opponent.

"Scalise won't run against McCarthy. However, if McCarthy steps back and drops out because he doesn't have the votes because Jordan has coalesced conservatives against him, then Scalise is waiting in the wings as the fall back," a source with direct knowledge of the matter told CNBC.

Scalise, McCarthy and Jordan all identify as conservatives, but they each have distinguished themselves in specific ways from political and policy perspectives. McCarthy has championed cuts in spending, while Jordan has pushed for releasing classified material relating to special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe. Scalise, meanwhile, has sponsored several bills that would reduce regulations on the oil and gas industries.

A spokesman for Scalise said his boss would not run against McCarthy — but declined to speculate on a scenario in which McCarthy would be forced out of the speaker's race. In 2015, McCarthy was considered the favorite to replace John Boehner as speaker, but he yielded to Ryan amid pressure from the Freedom Caucus.

A spokesman for McCarthy did not return requests for comment.