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After Cantor's Loss, House GOP Faces Internal Battle For Key Leadership Slot

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy expected to easily win Cantor's old job

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Nine days after Eric Cantor lost his seat in a stunning primary race, House GOP members will gather Thursday to elect a leader who will replace him as the No. 2 House Republican.

California Republican Rep Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking House GOP leader, is expected to easily beat Rep. Raul Labrador from Idaho to ascend to Cantor's spot.

At a meeting Wednesday with all House Republicans, McCarthy spoke with optimism about the party's chances to retake the Senate this fall. He pledged to work closely with Senate GOP members and coordinate a more consistent party message nationally, according to those present at the meeting.

Labrador didn't criticize McCarthy by name, but argued the leadership team needed fresh blood.

"If you vote for the status quo tomorrow, you will prove that we are still not listening. We will break our pledge and with that we may lose the ability to regain control of the Senate and eventually win the Presidency," according to remarks circulated by his office.

Most members leaving the meeting agreed McCarthy would win the vote scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

The more intense fight consuming the corridors in the House is the three-way battle for McCarthy's current job as House Republican whip.

Conservatives want one of their own

Conservatives see this race as a chance to get a stronger voice into the House leadership lineup. A group of members on the right have been disappointed in the current team, which they believe hasn't cut spending enough and hasn't solicited input from members on bills. Outside conservative groups are also pushing for one of their own to gain a slot in leadership.

McCarthy's chief deputy whip, Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, is vying for the post with Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise and Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman. Scalise is considered the frontrunner, and he and his allies argue it's time to add red state Republican, especially since the other top Republican leaders hail from blue states.

Scalise also emphasizes his experience leading the group of fiscal conservatives called the Republican Study Committee, and his role pushing bills cutting federal spending and overhauling Obamacare.

"I think we've proven that you can actually bring people together and build the kind of coalitions to get the policy we're so passionate about in a way that unites us and starts addressing those problems."

Roskam, whom many members view as the more moderate candidate, has worked hard in one-on-one meetings with members to brush off that label, telling reporters leaving one gathering on Tuesday night, "I'm a conservative who won in suburban Chicago in 2006, as a conservative through and through."

At the closed-door meeting with all GOP members Wednesday morning, Roskam said he'll reconnect members with the GOP voters who gave the party the House majority in 2010, but now feels disconnected with Washington. He has also been stressing his experience as McCarthy's deputy.

"Our base has lost confidence in us. Our base doesn't feel like we reflect their, frustration, reflect their rage. We need to communicate our deep convictions to our constituents," Roskam told members, according to a source in the room.

A late entry to the race

Stutzman, who entered the whip race late and admits he needed to make up ground, insisted Wednesday morning, "We're in the ballgame."

Perhaps as a reference to Cantor's loss, Stutzman said he sees the job as looking out for members back home. "You have to work with each member and know exactly what matters to them in their district, and make sure that they have not only the ability to explain, but if their district doesn't support it make sure that they don't have to vote for something that would cost them an election."

House GOP members cast votes for their leaders using secret ballots. With 233 Republicans in the House, a candidate needs 117 votes to win. If no majority is reached -- as many believe won't happen in the whip's race with three candidates -- the contest will go to a second ballot.

Scalise, Roskam, and Stutzman spent the last week dialing, texting, and buttonholing colleagues on the House floor to press for their support.

The 13 House Republicans from Pennsylvania attempted to flex some power as a group and summoned the candidates to sit down with them on Tuesday night. In past leadership races, the Keystone State members have not voted as a bloc. It appeared they would for McCarthy, but Rep. Jim Gerlach told reporters they were undecided on the whip race.

The dwindling group of moderate House Republicans, dubbed the "Tuesday group" for the day of their weekly meetings, called the candidates in to make their campaign pitches.

Once a force among House GOP leadership, southern state Republicans also scheduled sit-downs with all of the GOP whip candidates, demanding they explain how their interests would be represented.

Scalise claims he has locked in support from more than 100 members, and Roskam's camp says it has roughly 90 solid supporters, but it's impossible to get an accurate count and many members at least publicly say they are undecided.

'Wait until the end of the process'

Florida Rep. David Jolly said he planned to wait until right before the election to make up his mind. He explained that he was a congressional staffer back in 1998 when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down and Republicans were prepared to elect Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston. But shortly before the vote, Livingston withdrew after a report of marital infidelity came out and back-bencher Rep Dennis Hastert was unexpectedly elected Speaker.

"I learned my lesson then -- wait until the end of the process to see what happens," Jolly said.

Leadership races are often more about personal relationships than political positions. Members want to know someone will schedule their bill on the floor, help raise money for their tough contest at home, or give them credit for key legislation.

"It's intensely personal," Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a Scalise backer, told reporters. He said, "Geography and ideology in and of themselves are never sufficient to tell you who is going to win."

North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson said he has gotten to know Roskam since they attend Bible study together on Wednesday mornings, telling reporters, "I know his character. I know his heart."

Thursday's GOP leadership election will fill in slots for the remainder of this Congress, but after the midterms every elected leader, from House Speaker John Boehner on down, will stand for re-election.

Hudson said going through the exercise now made him and others rethink what House Republicans should be doing, and predicted even those who win on Thursday will be campaigning again in the fall, saying "I don't think anybody will be uncontested."

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