Vote today could push Price up GOP ladder

If Price becomes conference chairman, the fourth-ranking spot in leadership, in a closed-door vote Wednesday, it would be a clear sign of strength for House Republicans’ conservative wing in their first post-election ballot test, as negotiations get under way on the year-end “fiscal cliff.” The position would give him more prominence in charting the caucus’ direction in the next Congress.

A victory also could decrease the likelihood of Price challenging Sen. Saxby Chambliss in the 2014 Republican primary. Price is perpetually tight-lipped about his political future but is widely rumored to be considering a Senate run – particularly if he is unable to rise in the House.

In this Congress, Price has been chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, the No. 5 leadership post. He is running against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the conference vice chairwoman.

Scorecards by media organizations and interest groups rate Price’s voting record more conservative than McMorris Rodgers’. The Georgian’s base lies in the South and in the conservative Republican Study Committee, which he chaired from 2009-10.

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University who studies Congress, said this race could provide “indications of the ascendancy of the more conservative elements of the Party.”

He added, “it’s Georgia against Washington state, and geographically you can’t get more disparate than that. And I think almost necessarily you can draw an ideological conclusion from the outcome of that race.”

Price has publicly broken to the right of the GOP House leadership at times. He said Sunday on Fox News, for example, that he disagreed with House Speaker John Boehner’s view that the Affordable Care Act, often called “Obamacare,” is “the law of the land” and Republicans should abandon efforts to repeal it. But he has not always differed. Price voted for last year’s debt-ceiling compromise when many House conservatives refused.

His willingness to advocate vociferously for the right has earned him endorsements for conference chairman from Freedom Works, a tea party-related activist group, and influential RedState blogger Erick Erickson, of Macon.

“Let’s not go wobbly,” Erickson wrote last week. “We know our ideas work. We know Tom Price knows our ideas work.”

In an email to the AJC, Erickson added that Price “maintains the credibility to continue the fight against Obamacare.”

Boehner has remained publicly neutral on the conference chairman, the only contested race for a top leadership post this year.

According to a report last week on Buzzfeed, a website that covers Washington politics, Boehner offered Price a more ceremonial leadership spot if he dropped out of the conference chairman race and pledged loyalty to Boehner’s leadership, but Price declined the offer. A spokeswoman for Price would not confirm or deny the report.

It is hard to gauge a favorite, as votes can break down on regional, ideological or committee lines. Not to mention campaign financial assistance.

Price has traveled frequently to help fellow Republicans campaign and raise money. He donated about $455,000 to the party and another $312,500 to Republican colleagues and candidates through his campaign and his Political Action Committee. McMorris Rodgers’ office said she traveled to 50 Congressional districts this campaign cycle and helped raise $1 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Records show that her campaign and PAC contributed another $250,000 to Republican candidates.

McMorris Rodgers has more establishment support, including most committee chairmen and close allies of the leadership. Price, meanwhile, has the public backing of past conference chairmen Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who is leaving the post to run the Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Mike Pence, now governor-elect of Indiana. Price also has support from vice presidential nominee and Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, one of the party’s biggest stars.

In a letter to colleagues Tuesday, Ryan wrote that Price’s “vocal leadership on issues like health care, tax reform, and fiscal matters has been vital to our messaging and policy efforts.”

McMorris Rodgers was Mitt Romney’s liaison to Congress during the presidential campaign. She also has made her mark in recent years by encouraging Republicans to get more active on social media. Or as Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a key ally of McMorris Rodgers and Boehner, put it: “She’s drug us kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.”

A major factor in McMorris Rodgers’ favor is that she would be the only woman chosen for a leadership post after an election in which the Republicans’ “gender gap” hurt them at the voting booth.

“She brings a different life experience than a lot of us in the conference have as a working mother and the mother of a special-needs child,” said Rep. Tim Griffin of Arkansas, who is helping court supporters for McMorris Rodgers.

Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah said that could be an impediment for his fellow Georgian, whom Kingston said he is supporting for the post.

“Tom has been a prodigious worker and most people know that,” Kingston said. “I think the only challenge he has is that he is going up against a woman. … I know that Tom has been out there raising money for the cause and helping candidates. He’s done all the right stuff.”

Kingston ran for conference chairman himself in 2006, losing out to Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida. Kingston said he publicly clashed with leadership over the cost of the new Capitol Visitors Center, and GOP leaders responded by pulling the strings against him behind the scenes.

“It’s very hard [to count votes] because the lie factor is pretty high when you’ve got secret ballots and people don’t want to be embarrassed and tell you no,” Kingston said.

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