Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer becomes latest casualty of House GOP's ongoing speaker skirmish

A man in a suit walks through a crowd
House Majority Whip Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., followed by reporters, leaves the Republican caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday after withdrawing as Republican nominee for House speaker, becoming the third candidate to fall short.
Jose Luis Magana | AP

As Rep. Tom Emmer’s bid to be U.S. House speaker hung in the balance hundreds of miles away, St. Cloud, Minn., Mayor Dave Kleis dared to consider the possibilities of having “the most powerful person in the House” standing lookout for the region.

But Kleis also recognized that it would be a mistake to get his hopes up that his congressman could do what other Republicans couldn’t in recent weeks: Actually win the gavel in a vote of the chamber. 

“It’s a tough job just getting the job,” Kleis said Tuesday afternoon, just before Emmer bowed out of the speaker race with his path seemingly blocked. “Which is really sad to watch what’s happening in Washington. You see it happening in communities all over, I mean, that division is really sad.”

Emmer seemed to be on track to become speaker after gaining backing earlier in the day from a majority of the House GOP conference. But he withdrew within hours when it became clear he was doomed in a floor vote.

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It was a whirlwind day for Emmer and his supporters and continued a stalemate that has left the House unable to operate for three weeks and counting. That began when a small group of Republicans joined all Democrats in pushing then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy from the post he had held for about 10 months.

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the Emmer holdouts, welcomed his departure.

“I think it’s good,” she said upon word that Emmer had withdrawn. She offered an assessment of what’s driving her and like-minded House Republicans.

“Here’s what’s going on: The GOP conference is changing,” she said. “And it’s changing to reflect America first. And Republican voters overwhelmingly support President Trump and the GOP conference and the Speaker of the House should do the same.”

Emmer has been a Trump supporter over the years and Trump, in turn, had endorsed his bid’s for re-election to the House. But the two split around the 2020 election results, when Emmer joined in voting to certify Democratic President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win.

To Trump and his allies, that was an unforgivable move. Trump himself helped tank Emmer’s bid with a lengthy social media post branding the congressman as “out-of-touch” with Republican voters, a RINO (short for Republican in name only) and a globalist. He said backing Emmer would be “a tragic mistake.”

After his pullout, Emmer left the Capitol meeting room in a hurry and didn’t stop to reflect on the disappointment before a crush of reporters.

In the morning, Emmer won the support of more than 100 House Republicans. Several told reporters huddled in hallways outside the meeting room they were optimistic the speaker battle was close to being settled. They were hoping to put an end to a spectacle that has produced embarrassing moments for the GOP.

Even some of those who dropped out of the Republican speaker’s contest after poor ballot showings spoke highly of Emmer. 

On social media, however, a few critics said they were concerned about past Emmer votes to raise the debt ceiling in addition to voting to certify the 2020 election. Others faulted Emmer for votes seen as accepting of gay marriage.

Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota supported Emmer and said he did a good job of making his case to fellow Republicans but it just was not enough — possibly because Emmer has been part of House leadership. He’s the Majority Whip — the third-highest ranking member. Those above him have also been denied.

“People have some concerns about Tom’s votes,” Johnson said. “But I would also say that there are a number of people were concerned with anybody who is and has been a part of leadership ascending to the speakership. They think that completely new blood is necessary.“

Democrats seemed willing to throw Emmer a lifeline, perhaps by not voting. That would have lowered the threshold he needed to get across the finish line. They found him less objectionable than other candidates because he voted to certify Biden’s win and has backed continued federal spending authorization to keep the government open.

“The House of Representatives cannot remain paralyzed. We cannot remain in the state of chaos and closure,” said Democratic Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut.

“The reason why we are even in this position is because Democrats supported a resolution to keep the government open. That was the hard line for some in the Republican caucus,” Hayes said. “So with that as the premise for moving forward, there has to be an appreciation and acknowledgement and acceptance of the fact that in order to get anything done, we have to work together.”

Back in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, Kleis said Emmer had proven himself a workhorse in his five terms. He’s disappointed by the denial and he lamented the speakership situation dragging on with no end in sight. 

Kleis used to be a Republican state senator. But as he watches the mess in Washington play out, he’s glad to be a mayor now without a formal party affiliation.

“It’s one of the reasons, almost 18 years ago, I left partisan politics because it became just so, so toxic.”

MPR News reporter Kirsti Marohn contributed to this story.