WASHINGTON – Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said he plans to run for House speaker, a move that will spark a contentious leadership battle in the House GOP conference just a few months before the November election.
“We’re running," Jordan told USA TODAY on Thursday. “There’s been a lot of frustration about the way this place has been run."
Jordan is one of the most powerful conservatives in Congress; he co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, a faction of about 30 hard-line Republicans who frequently clash with the House GOP leadership. Jordan's bid presents a direct challenge to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the presumed front-runner to be the next House speaker.
The current speaker, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is retiring at the end of this Congress. On Thursday, Ryan endorsed McCarthy, though he noted he would not have a vote in the leadership contest.
“I’m not going to be here,” Ryan said. “I support Kevin McCarthy.”
President Donald Trump is close to both McCarthy and Jordan and it is not clear who, if anyone, he would throw his support behind.
The GOP leadership battle erupted amid a larger election fight for control of the House. Democrats believe they have a good shot at picking up the 20-plus House seats they need to gain control, in which case the fight over the speaker's gavel will unfold on the Democratic side.
Jordan has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after several ex-wrestlers at Ohio State University accused him of knowingly ignoring sexual abuse allegations while Jordan was a wrestling coach at Ohio State University.
Ohio State announced in April that it was opening an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against its former wrestling team physician, Dr. Richard Strauss. On July 20, the university announced that more than 100 former Ohio State students have come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Strauss.
More than a half-dozen former wrestlers allege Jordan knew about abuse from Strauss when he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State from 1987 to 1995. Strauss, who served as the team's doctor from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s, died in 2005.
Jordan has denied that he knew anything about the alleged abuse, and 15 wrestlers and six former coaches have come to his defense. However, Russ Hellickson, the head coach at the time who has defended Jordan, told USA TODAY he was aware Strauss made the athletes uncomfortable.
With Election Day still three months away, internal leadership jockeying in the House is well underway on both sides. Jordan dispatched interns Thursday to deliver letters to his House colleagues announcing his bid for the post.
On the GOP side, McCarthy has not officially announced his bid for speaker, but on Wednesday, he told a group of conservative high school students he wanted to be speaker, according to The Washington Examiner.
McCarthy's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The emerging race between Jordan and McCarthy will spotlight a long-simmering rift between hard-charging conservatives and more mainline and moderate Republicans.
That rift was center stage this week. One day before announcing his speaker campaign, Jordan and his conservative allies filed articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in an escalating battle with the Department of Justice over the agency's investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election.
That move was popular with conservatives and earned Jordan a flurry of positive press from conservative media outlets. But other Republicans opposed the impeachment threat and have defended the Department of Justice's handling of the probe.
“Do I support impeachment of Rod Rosenstein? No, I do not," Ryan told reporters on Thursday. “... I don’t think that this rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors."
Jordan and other conservatives have argued that Rosenstein is not turning over crucial documents related to the Russia probe. But critics say it's an effort to undermine the investigation, being led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
In the speaker's race, it's unlikely Jordan could garner enough votes to win. He has the loyal support of the House Freedom Caucus members, but many other Republicans dislike his confrontational style and his hard-line politics.
Jordan conceded on Thursday that he did not have the votes now but said he would spend the coming weeks lobbying his GOP colleagues for support.
"We’ve got three months of a campaign so we’ll talk to our colleagues," Jordan told USA TODAY. "I’ve had a lot of members outside the Freedom Caucus who think this place needs to change and that’s what we’re all about.”
Even if he can't win, Jordan could use his leverage in the race to help determine who does become the next GOP leader and get extra concessions in the process. It will be difficult for any lawmaker to become speaker without Freedom Caucus support; if the group withholds their votes in bloc, they could hamper McCarthy or any other challenger's ability to get the required votes.