Inside the GOP’s heated, leaky race to lead a powerful House panel

Vern Buchanan‘s GOP colleagues have an anonymous warning for his campaign to lead a powerful House panel: It’s not locked up yet.

While early reports indicated the Floridian had the votes for the top GOP spot on the Ways and Means Committee shored up, there are signs Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) has gained ground. He’s aggressively working members of the House Steering Committee — who will decide who gets the plum position — and touting higher fundraising numbers.

POLITICO spoke to more than two dozen of the current members of the roughly 30-member committee about who they support, granting anonymity so lawmakers could speak frankly. That vote tally shows the three-way race has no guaranteed winner; one Steering member said the dynamics have “shifted significantly.” Though Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), who is known as more of a policy wonk, trails the other two.

“We knew early on whenever we got in the race that no one had it locked up,” Jason Smith said in an interview. “And the reporting early on said that it was a lock for Vern and we knew that it wasn’t, and I feel comfortable where we’re at.”

Among the members who were willing to answer, the results suggest Buchanan and Jason Smith will be going head-to-head, with three main groups in the mix: Buchanan supporters, anti-Buchanan voters and those who are still undecided or declining to answer.

The voting process itself could easily work against Buchanan. Members need a simple majority to win, but if no candidate receives a majority in a three-way race, then the lowest person drops out and the panel goes to the second ballot. A handful of Steering members said they are supporting “one of the Smiths,” while others said they were backing Adrian Smith but would shift support to Jason Smith if it went to a second ballot.

However, there are some unknowns to consider that could shift the race to lead Ways and Means — which has jurisdiction over taxes and other revenue-raising measures — in anyone’s favor. The Steering panel makeup will adjust as Republicans look to replace the seats of at least three retiring members and fill new regional representative seats, which will be impacted by where Republicans win seats in the midterms. Plus, expected shuffling to House leadership will highly impact the committee.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s vote will be decisive. If he wins the speakership, as expected, the GOP leader would then have four votes on Steering, whereas other members only have one, plus a designee that is expected to vote alongside him. At least two Steering members telegraphed to POLITICO that they would at least partially base their vote on McCarthy’s choice. And Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), a McCarthy ally who is expected to rise to majority leader with little to no trouble, will have two votes.

While cozying up to Steering members is a big part of the game, as well as fundraising, some Republicans felt Buchanan took it too far. His attempts to project confidence in the race have backfired among some members — the question is how much.

Multiple lawmakers on the panel believe the Florida Republican’s team is behind leaked comments to a beltway newsletter that suggest Buchanan is the future chair. That’s including a recent one from National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), as well as some from McCarthy himself and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the Republican Study Committee chair.

Steering members don’t deny that McCarthy and company made the comments, but they argue those statements of support are typically trotted out to encourage GOP donors to pull out their wallets. Leaking such comments in order to publicly suggest it was genuine support felt like a “gotcha” moment, according to some frustrated Steering members.

“I don’t believe that information should be made public,” said Jason Smith, calling it the “worst thing” to do in such a race. “And it definitely should not be put to the press to try to help promote or push a certain agenda or candidate. And when that happens, it does backfire.”

Buchanan’s office declined an interview request for this story, as the Floridian’s state was grappling with Hurricane Ian. In a statement provided to POLITICO, he said he was focused on Republicans taking back the House next year.

That’s not to say Buchanan doesn’t still have his supporters. The Sarasotan comes from a blue-collar background but built up a net worth that exceeds $100 million. He lives in an area and a state that is primed for thick-pocketed donors. And he has delivered on his dollars.

Buchanan leads the other candidates in terms of fundraising, giving House Republicans’ campaign arm $3.1 million this cycle as well as over $320,000 to members and candidates. Jason Smith, who has vowed to match Buchanan, follows him with $2.5 million to the NRCC as well as $620,000 for members and candidates this cycle. And Adrian Smith has elected to give $1.3 million directly to candidates and committees, rather than routing it through the NRCC.

Buchanan also has the seniority argument on his side, holding every single subcommittee leadership role on the panel in his eight congressional terms — though he is tied in terms of time serving on the panel with Adrian Smith. And he enjoys the support of the only GOP Steering member who is publicly airing his vote plans.

“You tell me who’s better than him as a candidate for that position,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly, who praised the other talent in the race. “I said, ‘You’re the guy. I mean, I’ve checked everything you said about yourself. I’ve checked your resume. … You are exactly who you say you are.’”

But members say you still can’t count out Jason Smith. In addition to his vow last month to match Buchanan monetarily, he impressed Steering members with a pitch about his humble beginnings, revealed for the first time in his career.

“I lived in a single wide trailer most of my life and then we upgraded to a double wide,” Jason Smith said, describing how he bought his family farm that had an outhouse and a water pump where he’d wash his hands.

“I always felt like I never needed to tell anyone and probably to be honest, I didn’t want people to know because I serve with millionaires and I’m not one. I still have student loans,” said the Missouri Republican, who said he shared his story because those experiences can help him “be a better leader for the committee on those issues.”

Adrian Smith, for his part, said while he’s his own man, his colleagues have told him that he is “most similar to Kevin Brady,” the Republican who is retiring from leading Ways and Means.

Jason Smith could enjoy plenty of support from the anti-Buchanan contingency, with some feeling prickly that the Floridian’s efforts to build relationships within the conference and the big checks only really started when he wanted the committee slot. One Steering member recalled how Buchanan had escalated his courting attempts, hosting key lawmakers for a series of cocktails and cigar gatherings, among other events. That’s normal during a committee race, but members said he had more ground to make up than the others.

The other two candidates in the race appeared to take thinly veiled jabs at Buchanan over those charm offensives.

“I was giving to candidates before I was running for chair,” Adrian Smith said. “So it’s not just all of a sudden.”

“It’s not like I just started because I was running a race,” echoed Jason Smith. “I think most members will say that I have the most substantial relationships with the largest number of Republicans up here.”

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