Personality, Not Policy, Will Determine Top House Armed Services Republican
The pick may telegraph whether the GOP intends a cooperative or combative approach to the Biden administration.
The race to replace retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas, as the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, is heating up.
The leading contenders are Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Mike Rogers, R-Ala., both reliably conservative members of the panel. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., has also thrown his hat in the ring, but is seen as a distant long-shot.
Close watchers of the committee say that the race will hinge as much — if not more — on the personalities of the men vying for the role as it will on their policy platforms. Rogers is a prolific fundraiser with an affable Southern charm. Turner has a more aggressive style, as displayed by his prosecutorial questioning of witnesses during President Trump’s impeachment hearings in the House. He is well-respected, but not necessarily liked, by his colleagues in the House, sources familiar with the dynamics of the race say.
“This is an intensely personal race that the HASC hasn’t seen in the last couple of runs. In previous runs, the destiny was pretty well known going into the races, given seniority and record,” said one person familiar with the situation. Turner and Rogers, this person said, are “both fantastically capable gentlemen. This is really a question of technique and approach and personalities than it is substance.”
The stakes are particularly high for a ranking-member post. If Republicans manage to flip the lower chamber in two years — seen as eminently possible — whoever prevails in December will take the gavel as chairman.
How the Steering Committee swings between those two choices — the labrador or the bulldog — may send a powerful signal about how the House GOP wants to posture itself in the new Democratic administration. The choice of a more combative ranking member could signal a party prepared to dig in against President-elect Joe Biden. Allies of Turner suggest that a more hard-nosed approach might be needed in a Democratic-controlled House under a Democratic president.
But the House Armed Services Committee has jealously guarded its history of bipartisanship, in part because it is responsible for one of the House’s most significant must-pass bills each year in the gargantuan annual defense policy bill. Critics of Turner’s approach say it could also damage that longstanding history.
“This is a really interesting and nuanced question because I think in the end, both gentlemen arrive at principled and bipartisan outcomes. The ways that they get there are very different,” said the source familiar with the race.
Turner, that person said, “takes an aggressive, in-your-face approach that burns bridges behind him but compels negotiations — if only because of the force of his personality.” Rogers, conversely, “is all about team building, about personal relationships, about classic politicking in the professional sense of the word.”
It is that team-player approach that may give Rogers an edge. The Alabama Republican contributed $1.2 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC, over the last election cycle, putting him in the top-10 of all members. Turner, in a much tougher reelection fight than Rogers, contributed less than half of that amount, at $561,000. (Rogers hails from a deep-red district that covers part of Fort Benning; Turner’s, which is home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, was on the Democrats’ list of districts they targeted to try to flip in 2020).
Rogers, as a member of the Steering Committee himself, is also well known to its members. (Under Steering Committee rules, he will choose a proxy from his own region to vote on his behalf.)
The Steering Committee weighs a number of factors in making its selection, including fundraising and seniority. It also eyes voting record — how consistently has a lawmaker voted with the party — and how successful that lawmaker has been in getting legislation passed.
Here, too, Rogers may have a clear advantage. Rogers, working alongside Rep. Jim Cooper, D.-Tenn., was a driving force behind the creation of the U.S. Space Force, the newest branch of the U.S. military created under Trump and the first new branch designated since 1947. A source familiar with Rogers’ thinking said that legislative achievement — along with his fundraising prowess — is a key example of the kind of leadership that Rogers wants to convince the steering committee he offers.
Close watchers of the race see Turner’s razor-sharp intelligence as his best advantage. He is a quick-tongued debater steeped in the policy details some lawmakers leave to staff, and as a former president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, is expected to bring a fierce attention to transatlantic issues that may take on fresh significance in a post-Trump world.
Rogers’ primary policy focus is on the threat to the United States from an increasingly assertive China — a vision that forms the thrust of his pitch to the Steering Committee, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
Turner may also have other options if the Steering Committee promotes Rogers. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is technically term-limited as ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and has long sought the gavel of the House Ways and Means Committee — and it was Turner’s performance on the bitterly partisan HPSCI that earned public praise from Trump during impeachment hearings. The hard edges critics say may lose him the Armed Services post might be seen as an asset for the Intelligence Committee role.
But as a select committee, HPSCI leadership is determined by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., not the Steering Committee. McCarthy could choose to leave Nunes in the post until the current Ways and Means ranking member, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, has finished his term. And in any event, Turner would have competition for the post: Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, is also angling for the position, multiple sources familiar with the dynamic say.
For now, Turner is said to be prioritizing the HASC post.
The most senior member of the committee after the departing chair, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., is not contesting the race.