WASHINGTON – Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer dropped out of the race for House speaker hours after he was selected by colleagues as the latest candidate for the job, failing to win over 24 Republicans who withheld their support.
Emmer needed the support of nearly all House GOP Republicans and could lose no more than four of them. He spent hours trying to change the minds of those who opposed his candidacy, many of them ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus members. But after several hours, he threw in the towel and left the cavernous room in the Longworth House Office Building where Republican House members are holding their closed-door meetings.
Chased by dozens of reporters and cameramen, Emmer ignored shouted questions, answering only one before fleeing in a black SUV. Asked how the meeting he had left was going, Emmer replied sarcastically, “It’s going great.”
After Emmer quit the race, House Republicans opened the door to other candidates. But they will likely face the same problems securing enough support in the fractious GOP conference.
On Tuesday morning, Emmer, R-6th District, emerged as the favorite after several rounds of secret balloting within the conference and finally won a majority with 117 votes to become speaker-designate three weeks after right-wing members of the Republican caucus led Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s ouster from the job.
But, a “never Emmer” campaign had been launched by allies of former President Donald Trump, who criticized Emmer for voting in Congress to codify same-sex marriage and to certify the results of the 2020 election.
Early this week, there appeared to be reason to believe Emmer might not face the same challenges as Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, who were selected speaker-designate, but didn’t have the votes to go to the full House. One factor that was big in McCarthy’s ouster and both Scalise and Jordan’s bids for speaker was former President Donald Trump’s influence on GOP House members.
But Trump then turned against Emmer on Tuesday right after Emmer’s speaker-designate win, saying on Truth Social “I have many wonderful friends wanting to be Speaker of the House, and some are truly great Warriors. RINO [Republican In Name Only] Tom Emmer, who I do not know well, is not one of them.”
That was a reversal from 24 hours earlier. When asked by a reporter in New Hampshire on Monday about Emmer, “who hasn’t always been your biggest fan,” Trump replied, “He’s my biggest fan now because he called me yesterday and told me he’s my biggest fan so … I’m trying to stay out of that as much as possible.”
Rep. Brad Finstad, R-1st District, said Emmer did not want a vote in the full House on his candidacy until he was guaranteed a win.
“We won’t go to the floor until he has the support,” Finstad said.
Despite Trump’s disparagement of Emmer, the gruff, former hockey player and coach had several things going for him. As the former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Emmer helped build a fractious and razor-thin House majority by fielding candidates and spending millions of dollars of NRCC PAC money to help those candidates in 2018 and 2022.
Emmer had also run a leadership race before, narrowly beating Rep. Jim Banks, R-Indiana, for the position of majority whip – the No. 3 leadership position. Besides a base of support, Emmer had an operation, with several good hands on his team, including Deputy Whip Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pennsylvania.
Emmer’s team spent the weekend pushing back against a campaign by Trump allies – including Banks – who were seeking to derail his candidacy.
In an email to GOP colleagues, Emmer’s team pointed out that he was one of the first members to endorse former President Donald Trump in 2016, and that he endorsed Trump in 2020.
The memo also said Emmer worked “hand-in-hand” with Trump while he was NRCC chair and included comments Emmer made to FOX News Sunday in 2022 denying that he had told candidates to distance themselves from Trump.
“Absolutely not,” Emmer said at the time. “The president has been a fantastic ally of ours, especially when it comes to fundraising and our candidates. Again, what we tell them is you know your districts, you know how to run to the people that are going to be voting for you in November.”
Wanting to be a player
Born in South Bend, Indiana, Emmer, 62, received his law degree from William Mitchell College (now the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.)
As a solo-practicing attorney, Emmer plunged into politics, serving on the city councils of Delano and Independence before running successfully for the state Legislature in 2005. As a new state representative, Emmer distinguished himself as a brash legislator with sharp elbows in his quest to get things done.
David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, was the former executive director of Common Cause Minnesota when Emmer called him “out of the blue” in his first year in office. He asked Schultz for the Common Cause “wish list” of campaign finance and ethics reforms.
Emmer said “you probably weren’t expecting this because of the perspective I have,” Schultz said. But the professor said Emmer indicated he was angered by the influence of money in politics, even when those big donations helped the anti-abortion lobby and other causes he believes in.
“I never expected him to respond,” Schultz said. “But he did, saying ‘I’ll carry everything on your list.’”
Emmer is now one of the top fundraisers in Congress, an attribute that should have helped him in his bid for speaker. He has tapped the resources of a new industry, the crypto currency world, to help raise political money and has become one of the biggest supporters in Congress of digital currency.
State Rep. Greg Davis, R-Rochester, who served in the state House with Emmer, remembers him as a smart, ambitious and competent legislator who wasn’t afraid of confrontation but was careful not to burn any bridges. He said Emmer could go from a heated floor fight with a legislator to dinner hours later with that political foe.
“There was no question he wanted to be a player,” Davis said.
Since McCarthy’s ouster earlier this month, detractors have revived Emmer’s sponsorship of a bill in 2009 that would shorten the time a driver’s license is revoked for driving under the influence, as well as Emmer’s ticket for a driving under the influence when he was 20 years old. Emmer also pleaded guilty to careless driving in 1991 after two charges for DWI were dropped. Emmer said his sponsorship of the bill had nothing to do with his personal history.
The ever-ambitious Emmer left the state Legislature to run for governor against Mark Dayton in 2010 on a very conservative platform in a blue-leaning state. He promoted tax and spending cuts and proposed a constitutional amendment requiring a supermajority in the state Legislature to approve any federal law before it could be enacted in the state.
Emmer narrowly lost that election against Dayton (43.2% to 43.6%) and launched a conservative talk radio show in the Twin Cities. After former Rep. Michele Bachmann retired, Emmer handily won her 6th District congressional seat.
As he did when he was first elected to the state Legislature, Emmer began his congressional career with the aim of getting things done. But this time he was not challenging the status quo as an outsider and was willing to work with the GOP establishment.
“I will be very deliberate,” Emmer told USA Today. “I’m here to accomplish something.”