Bob Sparks: Dan Webster runs for Speaker; for whom will Gwen Graham vote?

John Boehner sure knows how to make news. At least he waited until Pope Francis left Washington before he dropped his resignation bombshell last week.

The soon-to-be-former Speaker set off a media and Capitol frenzy with his Friday announcement.  Boehner’s decision elicited respectful reflection from one side matched by jubilation from the conservative wing of the GOP.

Next week a new speaker will be chosen. U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the current majority leader, is favored to win. Like he did in January, U.S. Rep. Dan Webster of Florida has also thrown his hat in the ring.

Webster was part of January’s “coup” against Boehner, when the Speaker ultimately prevailed despite losing 25 votes. Webster earned 12 of those votes, the most among the rebels. Among the Florida delegation, Rich Nugent and Bill Posey voted for Webster, Curt Clawson voted for U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Ted Yoho voted for himself. Will more come Webster’s way for an “open seat”?

Some wonder what chance do the conservatives have to deny McCarthy the position. The short answer is “not much,” but some.

First, McCarthy must obtain a majority of voting members to prevail. If all members vote, he would need 218 votes.

Let us stipulate that all 188 Democrats will vote for someone other than a Republican. That leaves 246 Republicans to determine the next Speaker. (One seat is vacant.) The winner can afford to have 28 Republicans vote for someone else.

Should Webster, or any combination of candidates, achieve 29 or more, the process repeats. That is where things could get dicey. Webster can further sell a record of success as a Speaker, but the odds still favor McCarthy.

Webster is known in Florida as the first Republican Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives since Reconstruction. To get there, he withstood a surprise last-minute challenge from Miami state Rep. Luis Rojas in November 1996 designed to deny Webster the speakership.

Once in office, Webster won high marks for transparency, inclusiveness and basically doing what he said he would do. Among other things, lobbyists, journalists and committee staff still fondly remember his institution, along with Senate President Toni Jennings, of the 6 p.m. Sine Die.


If he were running for president, his record as Speaker would be front and center. He will tout that record in the days before the House vote.

Surprisingly, Webster’s lifetime rating (covering only his federal service) by the American Conservative Union (ACU) is only 78. McCarthy, currently dubbed the “establishment” candidate by detractors, has an ACU lifetime rating of 89.

Over the past two years, both men have been in the low to mid-70s, coinciding with a downward trend among the GOP in Congress. Voting for large Omnibus spending packages is a no-no with the ACU. Among the Florida delegation, the only member with a perfect 100 lifetime ACU rating is U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Let us say more than 28 Republicans ultimately back Webster; then what? The climb to 218 would already be steep for him and with the obvious animus between conservatives and the “establishment,” there seem to be many more identified by the latter description.

Another hurdle for Webster lies in the Florida courts. McCarthy and his supporters can say this: “Even if Webster wins, he won’t have a seat after next year’s election.”

The congressional redistricting maps now in the Florida court system all seem to point to a new district Webster will have difficulty winning. He is well aware of this fact and has complained loudly about it.

Webster’s opponents may argue about the visual of seeing a sitting Speaker defeated for re-election to the House. Remember the hay Republicans made out of then-Speaker Tom Foley being voted out by his constituents in 1994?

One other interesting Florida tidbit arises from the upcoming vote. In 2014 Democratic candidate Gwen Graham pledged to vote for someone other than Nancy Pelosi for Speaker if Graham defeated U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland last fall.

Graham kept her word and in her first vote, voted for Tennessee U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (who himself voted for Colin Powell). Graham has taken plenty of gas from within her party on a number of votes that accurately reflect her district.

Does she vote against Pelosi, who will again be nominated, twice within a calendar year? It is another decision for the freshman congresswoman who, like Webster, is looking at a potentially new district that would look nearly unwinnable on paper.

Dan Webster would be a good speaker; he has shown what he can do. But if the odds turn into reality, Kevin McCarthy will assume the role in a few days.

Whoever wins, Congress needs the best person who can repair sibling rivalries and can lead both on policy and on tactics. Recent history shows the latter will be vitally important.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Last updated on May 17, 2016

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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