House Republican Whip Steve Scalise has made it clear that he will not run against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy if an election is called for speaker of the House.
Yet, that hasn't stopped Scalises' closest advisors from preparing him for the possibility that if McCarthy fails to capture the nomination, he could become the alternative candidate lawmakers could support.
In private conversations that have taken place since House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., announced he would be retiring at the end of the year, friends and allies of Scalise, who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity, say they've been told that the House whip's team are formulating a plan for their boss to run for speaker if McCarthy's bid fails.
Here's why Scalise's team has hope. There is growing speculation on Capitol Hill that House Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, will jump into the speaker's race disrupting McCarthy's chances of pulling off a victory, those sources say. Jordan has been privately courting lawmakers and allies on the Hill about possibly running, according to sources with direct knowledge of the matter.
In a statement provided to CNBC, a spokesman for Scalise did not deny that the Louisiana congressman would try his hand against an opponent other than McCarthy, or that the whip's staff had been preparing for the possibility of a failed McCarthy bid.
"Speaker Ryan has made it clear that he will serve his full term, and Whip Scalise has made it clear that when the time for leadership elections comes, he will support Leader McCarthy as our next speaker," Chris Bond, Scalise's spokesman, said in statement. "Clearly there will be plenty of rumors and palace intrigue in the meantime, but the fact is, this leadership team is focused on working together to bolster our Republican majority, not on some leadership election months down the road — because no one wants the Democrats to take the House and Nancy Pelosi to be our next speaker," he added.
Representatives for Jordan and McCarthy did not return requests for comment.
Congressional aides say if Jordan goes up against McCarthy, the California Republican would stand little chance because the conservative Freedom Caucus' three dozen members would likely vote for Jordan, splitting the House Republican conference and denying McCarthy the majority needed to win.
There's also a growing concern in Republican circles that McCarthy has not done enough to connect with the Freedom Caucus since the last time he ran for speaker in 2015, when the conservative wing of the party forced him out of the running and he ended up conceding to Ryan.
Shortly after Ryan announced he retirement, Politico interviewed 20 members of the Freedom Caucus to get their thoughts on McCarthy. The results were a variety of opinions, but most of said McCarthy would need to make concessions to gain their support, including the need to push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to take up more conservative House-passed bills.
Other requests from the conservative caucus included the installation of some its members into leadership positions and its allies to be placed onto various congressional committees.
On the other hand, Scalise is known in the halls of Congress to have more of a rapport with the conservative group as he's worked with it to bring legislation it supports to the floor, including a recent immigration bill crafted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that would include border wall funding, security and enforcement provisions, and limiting Dreamers to obtaining three-year work permit renewals.
All of the speculation as to who will be the next speaker is based on Republicans maintaining control of the House by the end of the 2018 congressional midterm elections, something that recent polls and models show is no guarantee.
On Thursday, The Economist published a model which predicts that Democrats have a 65 percent chance of winning a House majority compared with Republicans who have their odds at 35 percent. Their model also forecasts that Democrats will finish election night with 222 seats while Republicans will have 213.
Meanwhile the Real Clear Politics generic congressional polling data have Democrats up by 4 points while Reuters gives them a 3-point advantage.