Two weeks out from an election in which Republicans are poised to make major gains, top social conservatives are voicing decidedly tepid support for House Minority Leader John Boehner, who stands ready to take the Speaker’s gavel if Republicans take the House in November.
“On the leadership question, I’m gonna take a pass on that,” said Gary Bauer, head of American Values. “I think Leader Boehner has done a good job in many areas. But I’m sure if there’s a new majority there’s likely to be a competition for all those leadership slots and I think for now I’ll just punt on that one.”
Asked if Boehner is the best person to lead the House, Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, said, “I don’t think I get to make that decision. I believe John Boehner is one whom is pro-life. And I have a good relationship with John Boehner.”
“I have no reason to believe he isn’t up to the task, at this point,” Nance said.
Struggling for relevance amidst the rise of Tea Party activists energized by spending, small government and economic issues, social conservatives had to fight Boehner to get language promoting traditional marriage into the GOP’s “Pledge to America.”
Meanwhile, a series of prominent Republicans, from former Vice President Dick Cheney to GOP superlawyer Ted Olson to former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman, have loudly and proudly backed gay rights.
Social conservatives turn to House Republican Conference Chairman Rep. Mike Pence as their chief ally in leadership.
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, said he’s “comfortable” with the Republican leadership in the House in spite of Boehner because Pence and Republican Whip Eric Cantor represent social conservatives in deliberations.
“I think [Boehner is] listening and obviously you have to look at the leadership as a team, and when you look at the overall leadership in the House, I think it is truly reflective of the conservative movement. I’m comfortable with the entire leadership,” Perkins said.
“I think Mike Pence, Eric Cantor are two that are very reliable and understand the dynamics of the conservative movement and understand the social conservative movement and how their issues are intertwined with the other elements of conservatives,” Perkins said.
When Boehner sought to purge the “Pledge” of anti-gay marriage language, it was Pence who intervened on behalf of social conservatives.
“There was a feeling by a lot of people on the Hill that since this wasn’t a platform…that the list needed to stay basically on economic items because that was what was driving the election,” Bauer said. “Thankfully, people like Congressman Mike Pence fought against that idea.”
As Bauer alluded in saying he expects there to be a competition for leadership, there are whispers of a challenge to Boehner.
But most social conservatives appear resigned to Boehner hoisting the Speaker’s gavel.
“Boehner is the person who’s gonna lead the House — anybody that I will suggest will be voting for Boehner,” said Tom Minnery, a spokesman for Focus on the Family.
“They have these historic gains, I don’t see the rank-and-file there in the House rejecting his leadership on it,” said Perkins.
“I think John Boehner will be fine,” said Jim Gilmore, President and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
Meanwhile, the social conservatives’ favorite, Pence, says he is loyal to Boehner. Pence “has said repeatedly that he supports John Boehner for Speaker, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff.
Most of Washington believes Boehner and Pence’s remarkably different styles and ideological focuses put them at odds – “frenemies,” as one operative put it. But those close to the two insist they work well together, complimenting each other with their different qualities.
Pence’s strength lies in his ties to conservative leaders. He has ushered a wide array of conservative leaders into meetings with Boehner, organizing the gatherings about once every three months.
One of Boehner’s strengths lies in fundraising, and he recently convinced about 75 of his top donors to drop a cool $100,000 for Pence’s leadership PAC at an event at the Capitol Hill Club.
In contrast to the large number of social conservatives who offered tepid support for Boehner, the Ohio Republican does have fans.
Colleen Holmes, executive director of Eagle Forum, said, “I think he’s done a fantastic job so far…I think he’s done an excellent job keeping the Republican coalition together. Fighting the stimulus. Fighting the health care bill. I’m not sure who the best person is – I don’t know – I’m not saying he’s not the best person to be Speaker. That’s really up to the new Congress to decide. But as far as we’ve seen we’ve been very pleased with his leadership.”
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, similarly pointed to Boehner’s leadership in keeping Republicans united against Democratic bills. “Boehner held this together. Without Boehner, no win,” Norquist said. “He held all the [Republicans] together to vote against the stimulus package. When somebody throws $800 billion on the table and offers to buy the soul of anybody who would play with the Democratic majority and they can’t get any takers – that’s leadership.”
Boehner also won an award from the National Right to Life Committee in June for his work fighting against taxpayer subsidized abortions in the President’s health care law.
However, several top conservative sources allowed that a major blunder by Boehner could result in the drawing of knives.
On a related front, some social conservatives are discussing ways to keep Republicans away from personal scandals that many attribute as a top cause of their fall from majority power in 2006.
Then-Majority Leader Tom Delay was indicted for improper use of campaign funds, several top Republicans went to prison for bribes and other improprieties related to the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal, and, one month prior to the 2006 elections, Mark Foley was found to have sent racy instant messages to underage male pages.
Hoping to avoid a ruinous repeat, Perkins said his group is discussing reforms to encourage accountability.
“There has been some discussions, we’ve been looking at a few things,” Perkins said. “Really it revolves around two things, money and morals.
“Part of that is looking at the environment of Congress, whether it’s a family friendly environment.
“Back in 1994, when the Republicans took over, Newt Gingrich basically told people to leave their families at home. So you have a lot of men there that don’t have the accountability of their family. And that’s a part of the problem.
“So we’re actually looking at some of the internal policies, and we may make some recommendations, that would make Congress for family friendly for members who serve,” Perkins said.
Ed. note: House Republican Conference Chairmen Mike Pence’s title was corrected in this article.