Some conservatives are concerned that the decision by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to withdraw from a key House leadership contest could be a sign of things to come for tea party supporters in their effort to shake up the Washington establishment.
Last week, Bachmann embarked on a bid against Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) for the post of House Republican Conference Chair, the number four-ranking position in a new Republican majority. But Bachmann, who founded the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, stumbled in gaining traction for the slot and pulled out Wednesday night.
At least a few conservative Republican House members wondered if this augured poorly for the tea party movement. And at least one Congressman blasted the new GOP leaders for trying to craft what was described as a "cabinet."
"I think it's the leadership protecting its power base and trying to keep the tea party from getting in the door," said one conservative Congressman who declined to be identified. The lawmaker went on to even compare the maneuvering of leaders to the iron fist management style of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
But top GOP leadership aides sharply dismissed suggestions that there were any behind-the-scenes machinations to derail Bachmann and elevate Hensarling. And from a political standpoint, one aide pointed out that the new leadership squad may be the most-conservative batch of leaders to ever steer the GOP in the House.
Presumptive House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and outgoing Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) both officially backed Hensarling, as did a number of other rank-and-file Republicans. House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Whip-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did not endorse in the contest.
That means the top Republican leadership positions are set and are likely to be finalized by acclimation next week at a rather anti-climatic GOP Conference meeting. It also means that white males will occupy the top rungs of the House Republican leadership ladder in a party that's always struggled with diversity. However, GOP Conference Vice Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) has signaled interest in another term in her role. And for the first time in years, the GOP Conference will feature two African American Republican freshmen.
Bachmann withdrew and immediately pitched her support behind Hensarling. She praised the Texas Republican's "commitment to limited government, reduced spending and lower taxes." Bachmann added that Hensarling will be a "strong voice" for tea party initiatives.
Bachmann's candidacy was a double-edged sword for the GOP. Many embraced her energy and tea party following. But at the same time, some winced about Bachmann's propensity for gaffes if she formally made it into the leadership. By the same token, many viewed her as a potential bridge to the tea party and especially to the conservative, freshman class.
Tim Phillips with Americans for Prosperity, has worked with tea party activists over the past two years. He says that it would have been "great" for Bachmann to be in leadership, but doubts this is a "blown opportunity" for the tea party to make formal inroads into the House leadership hierarchy.
"Jeb fits perfectly," Phillips said of Hensarling. "If Hensarling were a moderate, it would be Katy bar the door."