Rep. Jake Ellzey (R-Tex.) described his Monday meeting with Rep. Jim Jordan as “very cordial,” one that ended with the retired Navy fighter pilot explaining why he would quietly oppose the Ohio Republican’s bid for speaker.
Three days later, as a group of Republicans opposed to Jordan’s candidacy met with the speaker-designate, Ellzey remained quiet, again. But he was restraining himself from yelling at Jordan.
“I didn’t say anything. Because I would have said something to him, about him, in front of other people,” Ellzey told reporters Friday.
Jordan always faced an uphill fight to claim the speaker’s gavel, needing 217 of the 221 Republicans to vote for a pugnacious conservative who had turned off dozens of veteran GOP lawmakers who prefer a reassuring steady hand.
What transpired, instead, was a career-defining flameout that burned so many bridges Jordan might never again have a chance to be speaker.
After 200 Republicans voted for him in a public roll call Tuesday, his support slipped in each successive vote. On Friday morning, Republicans retreated to their basement meeting room for another mobile-phones-prohibited gathering after a third ballot on the House floor.
Jordan asked for a secret ballot to determine if he should remain their speaker-designate. Just 86 Republicans, less than 40 percent of the caucus, voted to stick with him. That was a dismal showing for Jordan and quite a bit fewer than the 99 votes he initially received on a secret ballot almost 10 days earlier when he narrowly lost the first nominating contest to House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.).
On Friday, he walked out of the basement conference room and gave less than 90 seconds of remarks. He expressed no regrets about the race, mentioning how nice it was to work with some colleagues.
“I appreciated getting to work with everyone, talk with everyone, I got to know members in our conference that I didn’t really know that well,” Jordan said, leaving without taking any questions.
Jordan’s four years of trying to be a team player — joining the inner leadership circle of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and working with establishment conservatives — fell apart in a one-week span that brought out all those past elements of discord and chaos.
Rather than unifying the group and claiming the most important job in Congress, Jordan further repelled older colleagues who never trusted his recent makeover. He also infuriated newer colleagues who saw the bullying campaign on his behalf as unseemly and dangerous.
Ellzey, who first came into office in a 2021 special election, went from quiet opposition to fiercely opposed to Jordan after some Republicans received threats from far-right activists. He felt Jordan’s response — which boiled down to largely one tweet condemning violence — was tepid at best.
“Once you want to be the commanding officer, you’ve got to take care of your people. You got to look out for their welfare,” Ellzey said. “That wasn’t handled appropriately. And so then I was dug in.”
Jordan, for sure, will not walk off into the sunset and retire from Congress. He will return as chair of the House Judiciary Committee conducting an impeachment inquiry of President Biden and investigations into the Department of Justice and FBI — a perch from which he will draw outsize attention in conservative media regardless of how successful these probes are.
His most fervent supporters in Congress remain even more committed to Jordan, firing barbs at their fellow Republicans for abandoning the fiery Ohio conservative.
“Jim Jordan deserved better than that,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who helped launch this chaos by leading the Oct. 3 ouster of McCarthy as speaker, told reporters Friday.
Now the question will be which path Jordan takes in the weeks, months and years ahead. He could try to rehabilitate his image with the Republicans who felt burned by his tactics, or he could revert to his original form and play the role of internal sabotage expert.
To paraphrase the longest-serving speaker ever, Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.), Jordan has to decide whether he wants to remain the fool who can kick down the barns on Capitol Hill or refashion himself into the carpenter that builds them.
More than half of the 221 GOP lawmakers arrived on Capitol Hill in January 2019 or later. Their only experience with Jordan came after his détente with McCarthy. They served the previous two to four years in the minority, when unity was relatively easy to find.
These newer Republicans don’t know firsthand about past infighting, instead seeing Jordan as the one who so fervently worked those 15 ballots in January to help elect McCarthy. A solid majority of Republicans from the 18 districts that Biden won three years ago backed Jordan on the initial ballots, trusting their deep loyalty to McCarthy and his support for Jordan.
Another half dozen swing-district Republicans seemed poised to flip to Jordan if he was on the cusp of a majority.
But for the more senior Republicans, particularly those on the House Appropriations and Armed Services committees, Jordan remained a trust-but-verify colleague.
They had long-standing disputes with Jordan, whose willingness to consider cuts to the Pentagon’s budget and opposition to backing Ukraine ran askew of their traditional security hawk orthodoxy.
“Unfortunately with Jim, there was a lot of baggage,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), first elected in 2016 and on hand for the five-week shutdown that Jordan orchestrated in late 2018.
A member of the armed services panel, Bacon hinted that, if he got really close to the majority on the first or second ballot, maybe he could be coaxed into supporting Jordan.
Jordan’s ouster was the right outcome, Bacon said. “I took no glee. Jim’s a good person. But it was right for the speakership role.”
Jordan skeptics had their antennae buzzing when Scalise defeated Jordan, 113-99, on the Oct. 11 vote to nominate a successor to McCarthy.
After the vote was announced, Jordan gave a halfhearted statement about supporting whoever could get 217 votes. With no explicit endorsement of the winner, Scalise’s camp saw that as a “dog whistle” by Jordan to his friends in the House Freedom Caucus to take down Scalise.
Within 30 hours they did just that, prompting Scalise to withdraw. On Oct. 13, Jordan became the nominee, but only after 55 Republicans wrote on a secret ballot that they would not support him on the House floor.
At that moment, Jordan’s chances of winning a floor vote were almost nonexistent, but his closest allies stormed out of that meeting and started talking about hunting the holdouts as if they were political prey.
They went on to sic the outside conservative media outlets on the holdouts, ignoring the warnings from leaders of the anti-Jordan wing. “You do it at your own peril,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told reporters after the Oct. 13 vote.
The congressional press corps, driven by the instant and short-term nature of social media, whipped ourselves into a frenzy on Monday after several senior Republicans announced they had flipped into Jordan’s camp. This created a false sense of momentum at a time when, privately, lawmakers like Ellzey were telling Jordan he did not have their support.
Rather than bowing out, Jordan plowed ahead with a first ballot on Tuesday, drawing 20 GOP votes in opposition, including the Appropriations Chair Kay Granger (R-Tex.). A 27-year veteran, Granger’s vote prompted gasps from lawmakers on the House floor.
Until that moment, Jordan’s antagonists had not been particularly well organized. “This was all organic. Nobody knew I was going to do it, nobody knew Chairwoman Granger was going to do it,” Ellzey, an Appropriations Committee member, said.
The die was cast, but again, rather than bowing out, Jordan pushed ahead. By the time the second ballot was held Wednesday, several GOP lawmakers had received violent threats from activists demanding they back Jordan.
“We all shared the common bond of, ‘wait a minute, we’re getting threatened from our right, personally, politically, and with physical harm. This is wrong,’” Ellzey said.
Jordan lost 22 votes from Republicans, and it became clear that they were now part of a well-organized unit using a slow-bleed strategy against Jordan: Little by little, a few more opponents would pop out with each ballot, protecting several dozen of them from the incoming political fire but assuring his vote tally would go lower.
He met with Ellzey, Diaz-Balart and some other holdouts late Thursday afternoon, a meeting that was described not so much as a negotiation but instead a demand he withdraw.
Jordan, again, called for a vote Friday morning, prompting 25 Republicans to vote against him. And then, as he learned in the GOP huddle downstairs afterward, almost 100 more would vote to kick him off the ballot.
Ellzey’s initial assessment of Jordan, in private on Monday, was that he lacked true leadership skills, something that the next four days completely reconfirmed.
“You have to have years of sustained superior performance,” he said. “And I didn’t see that.”