The rise and fall of Rep. Tom Emmer's bid for House speaker

Tom Emmer,Anthony D'Esposito,Steve Scalise
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 10.
Patrick Semansky | AP

Minnesota 6th District Congressman Tom Emmer held the nomination for about four hours Tuesday before he withdrew his name. He learned that it would not be possible to win over far-right Republicans, especially after former President Donald Trump blasted him on social media.

The Minnesota Representative has kept his own public comments to social media — he has not spoken about the defeat, but posted in support of Johnson Wednesday morning. After all this, Emmer remains in a leadership position, he's the House Majority Whip.

But how much power does he have now? Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota and an expert on congressional politics joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to explain the situation.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: We're watching a live feed of the US House and a floor session right now where it's expected that Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson-- the latest Republican to try for the job of Speaker-- will get the necessary votes to take the gavel. Minnesota's sixth district Congressman Tom Emmer held the nomination for about four hours yesterday before he withdrew his name. He learned that it would be not possible to win over far-right Republicans, especially after former President Trump blasted Emmer on social media. The Minnesota Representative has kept his own public comments to social media. He's not spoken about the defeat, but posted in support of Johnson this morning.

After all of this, Emmer remains in a leadership position. He's the House Majority Whip. But how much power does he have now? Joining us to help explain the situation is Catherine Pearson, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota and an expert on congressional politics. Professor, welcome.

KATHRYN PEARSON: Thank you so much, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Hi. Who is Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson? And how different a speaker might he be versus Tom Emmer if Emmer had the votes?

KATHRYN PEARSON: Well, that's a great question that a lot of people have been asking last night and this morning. Of course, Emmer defeated Johnson yesterday in the voting that house Republicans took when he was nominated for those four hours, but it looks like Mike Johnson will prevail on the House floor tonight just as he did yesterday. But he is not a household name.

He is a conservative Republican from Louisiana only in his fourth term. He serves on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committee. And although he's the House Republican Conference Vice Chair, he is not a member of the inner circle of leadership, and he does not really have a lot of leadership experience.

So he has not been involved in deal making. He is not a big fundraiser. That, of course, is something that Tom Emmer really shone at as he was chairman of the Republican congressional committee to help elect house Republicans for two terms. So he is an outsider in many ways, although he is known to his Republican colleagues as being a very conservative member.

CATHY WURZER: So as you say, leadership is still a question mark. Say, it would appear that former President Trump's comments helped to doom Emmer's nomination. What's the message being sent to other perhaps less fervent supporters of the former President in the caucus with Emmer's withdrawal?

KATHRYN PEARSON: Well, Trump's message on social media yesterday after Tom Emmer received the nomination was really very striking. He referred to Congressman Emmer as a Republican in name only. And that was really based on the fact that Congressman Emmer voted on January 6, 2021 to certify the electoral college vote.

Because Emmer had actually been a pretty early congressional supporter of Trump in 2016, he certainly supported him in 2020. So he really had been a supporter of Donald Trump. And it was really just that vote that pretty much did him in with Trump.

And as a result, a lot of Republicans who still strongly support Trump were not willing to vote for Congressman Emmer as their speaker. So it really tells us that it's not so much about whether or not you're conservative or moderate, but it's about your support for Trump in terms of a litmus test of party loyalty. Its loyalty to the former President.

CATHY WURZER: So as you say, Trump described Emmer as a rhino Republican in name only. But does the moniker fit given Emmer's record?

KATHRYN PEARSON: It absolutely does not. So, I think, people who have followed Tom Emmer's career in Minnesota were really struck to hear him described by the former President as a Republican in name only. Certainly, when Tom Emmer served in the Minnesota House for six years, he was very conservative and a fiery conservative and a controversial conservative.

And indeed, he actually in 2007 sponsored a bill proposing a constitutional Amendment for Minnesota to recognize only marriages between men and women. And he was a staunch conservative in his bid for the governor's office in 2010 in Minnesota, which he lost by only half of a percentage point. And so Minnesotans really know his conservative record.

Now when he went to the House in 2014, he was more collegial. He wasn't quite as fiery, but he still had a very conservative voting record. He did vote in the last Congress to recognize marriages between same-sex couples and interracial marriages should the Supreme Court end the federal right to marry for same-sex couples, but he generally was a very or is a very conservative member of the Republican conference.

CATHY WURZER: So Tom Emmer tweeted his support for Mike Johnson earlier this morning as I mentioned. He just rose, I see, applauding Johnson with the rest of the Republican conference on the floor of the House. So apparently, Emmer is falling in line. But I'm wondering how wounded is Tom Emmer as a house leader.

KATHRYN PEARSON: Well, he is wounded. And Steve Scalise, who was the House Majority Leader is also wounded in the exact same way. Both were nominated by their party, but then ultimately withdrew before a floor vote because a more conservative candidate received more support. Now, of course, Jordan in the end did not win on the floor himself, but he is wounded.

That said Johnson comes to the speaker or well, Johnson will likely come to the speakership assuming he gets the votes in the vote that's going on right now as a speaker without a lot of experience-- without a lot of experience in fundraising, and without a lot of experience in deal making. And so he will really need to rely both on Scalise and Emmer who themselves did not receive the support of all of their conference to become speaker. So it's a complicated situation.

And I think time will tell how well their partnership goes. But typically the speaker, the Majority Leader, and the whip work very closely together. And so we'll see if that happens in this case. But there are some big bills coming down the pike namely, a deadline of November 17 to keep the federal government open.

CATHY WURZER: Because ostensibly Mr. Johnson will become House Speaker in this new position, I mean, that is a huge challenge for him, I'm assuming. Do we have any idea as to how he might handle something like that?

KATHRYN PEARSON: Well, he talked last night that he would put one of the 12 annual appropriations bills energy and water on the House floor as soon as possible. So it sounds to me like he's pursuing a strategy of passing the bills one by one. But of course, then the problem that has plagued every Republican speaker or candidate will come to pass. And that is compromising with the democratically-controlled Senate and a Democratic president to get an appropriations bill that all will agree upon in order to fund the federal government to prevent a federal shutdown. And so the same problems that plagued John Boehner back in 2015, speaker Ryan a few years later, and then most recently Kevin McCarthy will still be a problem for Johnson.

CATHY WURZER: So, stay tuned. We'll see what happens. Say, the last time you were on the show, DFL Representative Dean Phillips was meeting with donors about a potential primary against President Biden.

Now he's not yet announced an official run. But as you know, a campaign bus with his name was spotted in Ohio yesterday. Do you see Dean Phillips as a more serious challenger than he did back in July?

KATHRYN PEARSON: I really don't. We have not seen people coming out of the woodwork to support him. In fact, what we've seen is a lot of Democrats being very upset by this challenge at a time when Democrats really are saying that they need to unify behind President Biden. So I don't see this as a serious challenge.

If this were a long-serving Senator, perhaps someone who could draw some endorsements and a lot of money, it might be a different situation. But I really don't see this as a serious threat to Biden. And I think that it's going to cause problems for Phillips in his own career as he continues as a Democrat.

CATHY WURZER: Give us a sense historically of the uphill climb an intraparty challenger has to a sitting president.

KATHRYN PEARSON: Oh, it's extreme. I mean, the scenario I'm thinking of is 1980 when Senator Ted Kennedy who, of course, was very well known and well liked within the Democratic party challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter. And that was a much more serious challenge, but it still didn't go anywhere, even as Carter was a weak candidate in 1980 and of course, went on to lose the general election. So this would be very challenging. And if, for some reason Biden were to withdraw, there would be many other Democrats with a lot more national recognition than Phillips waiting in the wings to jump in.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Always a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

KATHRYN PEARSON: Thanks, Cathy. I appreciate it.

CATHY WURZER: Kathryn Pearson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. She specializes in congressional politics.

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