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Scalise says he's a unifier. The current state of the GOP will test that skill

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise emerges from a House GOP conference meeting on Wednesday after his colleagues chose him to be their nominee for speaker.
Chip Somodevilla
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House Majority Leader Steve Scalise emerges from a House GOP conference meeting on Wednesday after his colleagues chose him to be their nominee for speaker.

Updated October 12, 2023 at 8:18 PM ET

Editor's note: Rep. Steve Scalise dropped out of the race for House speaker late Monday after failing to secure enough support for his bid to succeed on the floor.

Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who has served in House Republican leadership for nearly a decade, faces one of the biggest challenges of his career yet as he hopes to unite a rowdy conference, which just earlier this month ousted California Republican Kevin McCarthy as House speaker.

On Wednesday, a slim majority of House Republicans nominated the Louisiana congressman as their choice to be the next speaker. His nomination marks a narrow win over Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, whose bid had been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Scalise's candidacy is expected to head next to a full House vote though it's unclear when that vote will take place and whether Scalise can garner enough support from his own party to be elected speaker.

A rising Southern star

Scalise is a native of New Orleans and represents much of the city's conservative and wealthy suburban areas in the U.S. House of Representatives. He has represented Louisiana's 1st District in Congress since 2008 after winning a special election to replace Bobby Jindal. Since January, he's served as House majority leader.

If elected, Scalise would be the first speaker from the South since Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich held the post from 1995 to 1999. He would also be the first House speaker from Louisiana in the nation's history. That could provide Southern Gulf states with an important voice in Congress and help highlight crucial issues like hurricane and flood protection and coastal restoration. For years, Scalise has worked to preserve federal flood insurance, and he's pushed back against insurance rate hikes, which are set by a program that operates under FEMA.

Scalise's district is home to Port Fourchon, one of the nation's leading oil and gas seaports that supplies about one-sixth of the nation's oil supply. A supporter of onshore and offshore drilling, Scalise celebrated the House passage of H.R. 1 earlier this year, a GOP-backed energy bill, arguing it would increase U.S. energy production and lower costs for consumers. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the legislation was "dead on arrival" in the Senate and the White Housethreatened to veto the bill, saying that it would "empower big companies to skirt the Clean Air Act."

But in a letter sent earlier this month to his GOP colleagues asking for their vote to nominate him as speaker, Scalise touted the bill's House passage as an example of his priorities and leadership style.

"I have a proven track record of bringing together the diverse array of viewpoints within our Conference to build consensus where others thought it impossible," he stated in the letter.

Disavowing David Duke's "baggage"

Before he arrived on Capitol Hill, Scalise served more than three terms as a state lawmaker in Louisiana's legislature.

During that time, he spoke as a guest to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization — a white supremacy group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The incident came back to haunt Scalise in Congress. He eventually apologized for ever speaking to the group, saying he wasn't aware of its controversial history.

His time with the group, and his adjacent association with Duke, has been dredged up again as he looks to move into the No. 1 role in the House. In one column that has received new attention on X, formerly known as Twitter, Louisiana politics writer Stephanie Grace recalls a young Scalise describing himself as "David Duke without the baggage."

In an interview about her column, Grace pointed out that Duke is from the same area of Louisiana as Scalise. At the time Scalise made that comment in the '90s, Grace noted that Duke had recently lost in a runoff to be Louisiana's governor and said Scalise's comment was likely reflective of his effort to appeal to a conservative voter group that supported Duke.

"What he was saying was, 'I'm not a Klansman. I don't believe any of those things.' And in fact he really had disavowed David Duke," explained Grace.

She thinks Scalise meant to imply that while he shared Duke's disapproval of affirmative action and entitlements, he rejected racism and anti-Semitism. Since those comments resurfaced, many have continued to condemn them including South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace who said on CNN Wednesday, "I personally cannot, in good conscience, vote for someone who attended a white supremacist conference and compared himself to David Duke. I would be doing an enormous disservice to the voters I represent in South Carolina if I were to do that."

Grace, who supports Scalise's bid for speaker, characterizes him as a "conservative guy" who supports a lot of mainstream conservative policy, including opposition to affirmative action and efforts to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

"He's always had very strong conservative feelings, but he has also had real friendships with Democrats and people who are not like him," Grace said. "And that really goes back as long as I've known him."

Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise throws the ceremonial first pitch prior to a baseball game at Nationals Park on Oct. 6, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
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Getty Images
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise throws the ceremonial first pitch prior to a baseball game at Nationals Park on Oct. 6, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Scalise is very familiar with adversity

Scalise's relationship with Cedric Richmond, a former Democratic congressman from New Orleans, is often cited as an example of this bipartisanship. Richmond and Scalise served in the Louisiana legislature and in Congress together and have often been called "the bayou brothers." Richmond, who now serves as a senior advisor for the Democratic National Committee, declined to comment for this story. But when Scalise was previously criticized for talking to a white supremacy group, Richmond defended Scalise, saying he doesn't have a "racist bone in his body."

Still, it is unclear whether Scalise can garner enough support to succeed McCarthy. In the Republican conference nomination vote on Wednesday, Scalise defeated Jordan, his opponent, by a narrow 113-99 margin.

But Scalise is no stranger to adversity. In 2017, the congressman was shot by a gunman at a congressional baseball team practice in Alexandria, Va. He drew upon that experience in his letter to colleagues asking for their support of his nomination saying, "I firmly believe this Conference is a family. When I was shot in 2017, it was Members of this Conference who saved my life on that field. ... When I was in the hospital for nearly 15 weeks, it was the possibility of getting back to work with all of you that kept me motivated to get better."

In August, Scalise announced that he has been diagnosed with a form of blood cancer. He has since said that the cancer has "dropped dramatically" crediting chemotherapy treatments.

By all accounts, however, Scalise remains determined to remain in D.C. and move up in the House.

Copyright 2023 WRKF

Molly Ryan