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By many accounts, Rep. Tom Emmer has one of the worst jobs in Washington.
But some Republicans think he might deserve a promotion.
Emmer, the Republican whip, handles the often thankless task of counting votes and building support in a GOP conference beset by ideological and personal divides. Now, the relationships he’s built across the House have led some hard-right Republicans to float his name as a top potential replacement if they oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — though Emmer has strongly said he supports the current leader.
A brawny Minnesotan who played college hockey and speaks in a stream of metaphors about the sport, Emmer has been one McCarthy’s chief negotiators, charged with finding common ground in a conference often at war with itself. His ability was just tested in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s dramatic vote to avert a government shutdown, one that required Democratic votes to succeed. And his job gets no easier, or less critical, in the coming weeks as Republicans face more internal brawls over spending bills, border policy, and Ukraine aid.
“It was like riding a mechanical bull all week,” Emmer told reporters Saturday after the government funding vote, though he added some self-criticism. “I’m not happy we did not have 218 Republicans (to pass the bill). That doesn’t work for me and we’re going to have to do a better job of making sure that happens, but I’m very pleased to be part of this team.”
After a week of speculation he went out of his way to praise McCarthy’s leadership. In a statement he said, “I fully support Speaker McCarthy. He knows that. I have zero interest in palace intrigue. End of discussion.”
But even if he doesn’t move up now, Emmer, 62, as the third-ranking Republican in the House, is in line for potentially rising even higher in the future. First he has to navigate a conference that refuses to come together.
“I like Tom and we’re fellow Minnesotans, and I wouldn’t wish his job right now on my worst enemy,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).
Republicans had only slightly gentler descriptions.
“I’m glad we have somebody with his tenacity in the 118th Congress as whip, because it’s tougher than I’ve ever seen, in terms of keeping people together,” said Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.).
Emmer reached his current spot after four years as head of House Republicans’ campaign arm. In that job he helped recruit and guide two dozen Republicans who have become part of the conference, giving him built-in relationships with many of the party’s most vulnerable members.
“Tom Emmer knows how we have a majority today,” said Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.), one of those front-line Republicans.
But while supporters laud Emmer for helping flip 24 seats and winning back the House over two cycles — delving into campaigns with granular knowledge of districts spread across the country — Emmer is also partially responsible for the slim majority that has hamstrung the GOP. Republicans’ midterm gains in 2024 fell far below historical norms, leaving them with a barely manageable situation in the House.
Emmer supporters point out that they still exceeded other Republicans’ performances in a year when the GOP lost key Senate and gubernatorial races.
The challenges were evident from Emmer’s first days on his new job.
He and Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) were two of McCarthy’s chief allies as Republicans slogged through 15 votes just to name a speaker. It was the first of a series of normally routine steps that have become high drama in the House.
Allies said Emmer’s hockey and coaching background prepared him.
“Any kind of team sport like that that’s fast moving and borders on the violent and has a lot of big egos, there’s a lot of similarities, if you will, to managing a team in Congress,” said Annette Meeks who was Emmer’s running mate in 2010, when he ran for governor of Minnesota and she was the lieutenant governor nominee. Before that she was an aide to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, getting an up close look at House leadership and vote counting.
Emmer has regularly brought individual members into his Capitol office to hear their differences, and find out what it takes to get to a solution.
“Tom’s in the customer service business,” Molinaro said, using a phrase Emmer often deploys himself. “When he led the NRCC and even now he tries to identify ‘How do you get from where you are to success?’ and he checks in on you to make sure it happens.”
Emmer’s approach involves inviting in 6 or 8 lawmakers at a time and listening, Reschenthaler said. He’ll ask what they want in a bill, or what might cause them to oppose it, and bring that information to McCarthy — without naming names.
As Emmer did as NRCC chair, he often brings granular knowledge about individual districts and pressure points that lawmakers face, said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.).
Keeping conversations confidential and blunt opens the door for a more honest discussions, Reschenthaler said.
“He accumulates what we describe as the center of gravity,” he said. “That is then presented to the speaker to determine what is doable.”
Reschenthaler acknowledged that it can be messy, but he said it’s made for a more open, transparent process.
But Democrats say the Republican approach has resulted in legislation consistently steered by the most far-right, including proposals that have no chance of gaining bipartisan support or clearing the Senate.
“People are losing faith in their government because they look at our own nation’s capital and they see the Republican extremism and the chaos that has driven the other side,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said last week. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”
People who know Emmer repeatedly used the words gregarious and tenacious to describe his personality. He’s needed those traits as proposals have repeatedly failed.
“He’s dogged,” said Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a close McCarthy ally. “He won’t let go.”
A New Era
Emmer’s challenge reflects his party’s unusually slim majority, but also captures the shifting dynamics in Congress: rank-and-file lawmakers no longer need to politely climb the ladder with the blessing of leadership.
With the power of social media they can often build their own stardom — often by defying the establishment. Strong arming doesn’t work as it might have in the days of Tom DeLay, the famously hard-nosed Republican whip from Texas.
“Members quite frankly are a lot more independent than they were in that era,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a tenth-term House member.
In that sense, Emmer and Reschenthaler’s collaborative styles “suit the times,” Cole said
“I don’t know anybody in our conference that doesn’t like Tom Emmer,” Cole said. “I love Tom DeLay – he’s a good friend of mine – but there’s a lot of people that didn’t like Tom DeLay.”
When Meeks worked with Gingrich when he was whip, in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, lawmakers who wanted to defy the party had to deliver that message personally.
“Now they announce it on social media and kind of cut you off at the knees and you’re left to try to get them to backtrack on something they said they would never do,” Meeks said. “That’s much, much harder.”
Emmer, a father of seven, was an attorney and local councilman before running for the Minnesota statehouse in a deeply conservative district, and then won the GOP nomination for governor in 2010. He lost the general election by just half a percentage point.
That experience taught Emmer about the fine margins that can make the difference in politics, said Amy Koch, the former Minnesota state Senate majority leader who represented the same district he did.
“I think he’d say this too: The run for governor wasn’t his best run. It was his first run statewide, and there were stumbles, there were screw ups,” Koch said, adding that Emmer showed humility in order to learn. “When you lose you’re forced to examine, and he did. I think you saw introspection on the mechanics of the campaign.”
He transitioned into conservative talk radio, working as a host, before running for Congress in 2014. Six years later he led the NRCC to gains in 2020, and then a narrow majority in 2022. He won the whip race by an even tighter margin: he survived the first round of balloting by one vote, and even then it was because one Republican accidentally voted the wrong way.
People who have worked with Emmer describe him as friendly and kind, the kind of boss who texts aides on their birthdays. His loyalty, they say, means he won’t turn on McCarthy.
“He’s 100% committed to Kevin in the speakership,” Reschenthaler said.
Remaining as whip means more months trying to detangle Republican knots. Meeks returned to a hockey metaphor to explain how Emmer approaches the Sisyphean task.
“One thing you learn is you’re not going to make all the shots that you take,” she said. “‘No’ is not the final answer. ‘No’ is maybe just the first answer.”