A small band of frustrated House conservatives -- with encouragement from outside activists and talk radio hosts -- are looking to Hensarling as a formidable candidate who could shake up the their conference's senior leadership team.
In Hensarling, a Texas Republican and chairman of the influential Financial Services Committee, conservative insurgents see a committed conservative who is simpatico with the Tea Party but capable of broadening support for their limited-government agenda.
There’s just one problem. Hensarling has neither laid the foundation, nor built the political operation required to launch a successful bid for a senior leadership post, particularly the speaker’s gavel.
“I don't think he has the relationships he needs to run a race for speaker or [majority] leader,” said a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the House Republican conference. “He may run in the future. He's only 57.”
Contests for congressional caucus leadership are about what is commonly referred to on Capitol Hill as “member services.” In other words: favors.
That includes help with fundraising, legislation and other assistance with political and personal matters. Members who successfully climb the leadership ladder tend to have fully developed member services operations, bolstered by a strong political shop.
They track favors granted, transgressions against them, and whether the offending member tried to make things right later on. Some leaders who have spent years cultivating the support of their colleagues keep a running tally in their head.
Absent a political earthquake that creates unexpected opportunities, it can take several years for this sort of legwork to pay off. Boehner was elected House minority leader in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 Democratic wave election that ended a dozen years of Republican rule on Capitol Hill. Then a 14-year House veteran, Boehner had spent eight years putting himself in a position to make a run for the top conference leadership post.
House Republicans are expected to hold their majority in the November elections, after which they will meet to vote on their leadership team for the Congress that will be seated in January. Under these circumstances, Hensarling hasn't cultivated the relationships required to win a race for speaker -- whether against the incumbent Boehner, or in an open race against Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., considered the Ohioan's most likely successor.
“His personality type is not the kind that develops relationships,” said one House Republican, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
The view of Hensarling as a detached policy wonk who either doesn’t understand, or isn’t concerned about, the diverse array of political pressures his colleagues might face from time to time is shared by others and could hamper any future bid for senior leadership.
These contests are often about personal connections and whether a member feels like their leader has their back when they’re in political trouble. In conventional campaign terms, Hensarling has an empathy gap.
Hensarling’s office declined to comment for this story. But the sixth-term Texan is hardly a political novice, and Republicans who don't believe he is capable of winning one of the top positions this year believe it is a distinct possibility down the line.
A protégé of former Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Hensarling ran his mentor's political operation. In 2010, he put his fundraising skills to work as finance chairman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and was elected House Republican Conference chairman immediately after the GOP wave that brought Boehner to power. Hensarling voluntarily stepped down from that position two years later to helm the Financial Services Committee, a post he had long coveted.
Hensarling recently transferred $1 million in campaign funds to the NRCC. But the congressman generally declines to travel to raise money for his colleagues, doing most of his fundraising in Washington or at home in his Dallas-based district.
Hensarling has two young children and prioritizes family time, typically scheduling the first available plane out of D.C. when the House recesses and the last plane back from Texas that enables him to make it back on time for session.
To win, Hensarling would have to recalibrate his priorities. The fact that he hasn't bothered to engage is revealing, and should tell conservatives who are looking to him to challenge Boehner that he has already decided against it, despite telling talk radio host Hugh Hewitt last month that would not make any “Shermanesque” declarations completely ruling out a bid for speaker this year.
A second House Republican who requested anonymity to discuss leadership races put it this way: Hensarling “certainly has the capacity — if he wants it.” But running for and serving as speaker, majority leader and the majority whip requires a member to build and run a “social welfare organization” to provide assistance his or her colleagues and dole out favors. “Jeb is motivated by policies and ideas.”
As the fall elections have drawn closer, leadership jockeying among House Republicans, though still a behind the scenes affair, has grown more intense.
There has been much speculation that Boehner could step down after the election, at which time he'll have been the top House Republican for eight years and the speaker for four. In that event, Cantor is likely to advance to speaker. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., could follow Cantor up the leadership tree uncontested. Highly regarded Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., also is viewed as a factor.
If Boehner does retire, House Republicans don’t expect Cantor to face much competition for speaker, if any. But many are now planning on at least one contested race, possibly two, for majority leader, majority whip, or both. If Boehner chooses to run for another term as speaker, the calculus becomes more complicated. Only Cantor is viewed at this point as strong enough to push Boehner out, but he is considered unlikely to make an attempt.
A major concern for House conservatives that have been itching for fresh blood in leadership has been that none of the top five Republican leaders hails from a reliably red state, leaving them feeling under-represented. Some have been hoping that Hensarling is the solution to this problem, given his conservative credentials and political acumen. But even they are beginning to wonder if it’s time to look elsewhere.
“He’s clearly somebody who has been elected to leadership before; clearly someone who is conservative, comes from a red state and knows how to articulate conservative positions to the people of America,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said. “Obviously people need to show an interest in you, which people have clearly shown an interest in Jeb. But if he’s interested in running, he needs to make it known.”