NBC’s Chuck Todd joined me to discuss the race to succeed Eric Cantor. Straight answers to tough, pointed questions from NBC’s White House correspondent:
HH: Joined by Chuck Todd, White House correspondent for NBC News, also the host of the [Daily] Rundown. Chuck, I had to get up at 4am this morning to catch the 6:30 JetBlue back to the West Coast, and I was going to nap, but first, Morning Joe was great, and then the Rundown was great. You had Kristol followed by Brat followed by George Allen, tremendously interesting inside baseball stuff.
HH: So my hat is off to you on just great programming, and thank you for sticking around. You’ve got to be a little bit tired tonight.
CT: I am. A little adrenalin, you know, it’s just a good story, man. It’s politics.
HH: It’s a great story. Now here is the part I want to focus in on with you – immigration.
HH: I think you were honing in on this, and Joe kept pushing back that look, Lindsey Graham won, and I kept thinking to myself, Neel Kashkari beat Tim Donnelly in California, who was a Minutemen guy. I think Mark Levin won this race by going down there and pushing an agenda that although there was part of immigration in there, Mark was, is very much a reform maximalist.
HH: You know, he’s got the book, The Liberty Amendment’s out there. Do you think immigration is getting too much play?
CT: Look, I know this back and forth, and I know this debate. I guess my, I don’t think it is. I think, frankly, we’ve been underplaying immigration as a hot issue inside these Republican primaries. I’ve been watching it left and right, and I don’t mean that ideologically, just all over the country. And more than health care, more than the debt, this election cycle, it feels back to 2007 for me. I feel like I’m having a flashback to that. This election cycle, it feels like immigration is what is the great dividing line between the establishment Wall Street wing of the party, the business wing of the party, and the populist wing of the party, and that ultimately, it is the most, and I thought Dave Brat hit it on the nose in the interview I had with him, when he said you know, it’s the biggest differentiator. He didn’t want to say it was the only issue, but then he acknowledged it’s the biggest differentiator. And when you look at this populist v. business wing split in the party, and that’s really what’s going on here, that is the most, it’s the easiest issue to show the example.
HH: Okay, now Kashkari got 19% of the vote, and Donnelly got 15%, and Donnelly is a Minutemen guy.
CT: Yeah, I mean, in distinct terms, I don’t mean, I just think to use California, I don’t know. I don’t buy it.
HH: All right, then you can use Lindsey Graham or you can use McConnell. But here’s where I actually think the party is 70% believe in regularization, not citizenship, 70% believe in a big, long, strong border, and 70% believe that everyone else can stay who’s not a criminal or a near-criminal, and we’ll figure it out. And I actually don’t think a big bill will be done. But when Xavier Bacerra comes on, the Democrats don’t want a bill, Chuck. You know, they love this issue.
CT: Oh, I agree with you on that. I completely agree. I think, I absolutely, look, I do think Obama wants the bill, because he wants a legacy, all right? He wants to sign something. He wants the accomplishment. Do I…a Democratic strategist? I think they’re licking their chops. I think they this as their way of keeping a polarizing issue at front and center that helps them with the changing demographics in this country. I mean, look at what the Hispanic vote has done to the California Republican Party. It’s decimated it. It’s decimated it.
HH: Yeah, and that’s why…
CT: And they see this division happening, and so I agree with you on this totally, transactional, political front. I agree.
HH: Yeah, my pal, Dennis Prager, says clarity is to be preferred over agreement, and the Republicans have refused to be clear. And when they do, things will get easier. Let’s go inside baseball. I just did this with Joe Scarborough. It’s going to be Hensarling and/or Sessions v. McCarthy. The two Texans won’t run. They’ll figure it out. Who do you think wins, Hensarling V. McCarthy?
CT: I don’t think, well, I’ll be surprised if it’s not Hensarling. I think Hensarling has the credibility with rank and file conservatives. Look, I’ve spent a lot of time on the Hill today just talking to the rank and file conservatives, you know, the folks that came in in ’10, you know, clearly not establishment types. Some people will say oh, they’re Tea Party, whatever you want to, sort of the more rank and file principled conservatives. And all of them feel as if McCarthy is more of the same, and that Hensarling is more grounded, that he’s not one of those, you know, leadership gets accused of being Republicans that sort of say the right things to conservatives, but then go tell us people in the mainstream media well, you know what I really mean is this. I have to say X, right? And I think McCarthy has been tagged with that, fair or unfair, and that’s why I think Hensarling probably has the upper hand.
HH: You’re the first guy I’ve heard to make that prediction. I think you’re right, by the way. Joe said if he were a member, he would vote for Hensarling, but didn’t make a prediction. I’ve got some other predictions that say McCarthy is the frontrunner. I think you’re absolutely right, Chuck Todd, and here’s why, and I’ll ask you. Who do you think is genuinely more conservative – Hensarling or McCarthy?
CT: Hensarling. Not even closer.
HH: Who do you think is a better communicator, both enthusiasm and availability, really loves doing it?
CT: That’s an interesting thing. I probably would lean McCarthy, and I think McCarthy has the personal relationships. That’s why you can’t, I wouldn’t be comfortable laying a lot of money against him, even though I feel like principally and ideologically, the conference, and frankly, if I were Boehner and I knew I was going to stay there a while, I’d almost prefer Hensarling there than McCarthy.
HH: Let me give you a little fun fact. Kevin’s done this show once in four years. Jeb comes on quarterly. Cantor never…
CT: That’s how you’d even know. I mean, you know, look, you’re talking to a lot of the…
HH: I talk to the base.
CT: …whatever they’ve called, opinion leaders of the base.
HH: Yeah, I talk to the base.
HH: And McCarthy doesn’t like to do it. Cantor never showed up in the last four years, Bochner’s never been on in four years. I mean, they come on with John Campbell when he guest hosts. How about in terms of policy wonks….
HH: …smarts, Hensarling or McCarthy? Who’s got the better edge?
CT: I’d go with Hensarling. He really is in the weeds on this stuff, particularly on budget issues, and I think it really animates him. He gets really into it. And you know what’s funny is on policy stuff, I’ve heard this from Democrats who you know, will ideologically disagree with Hensarling, but they always say it’s a very substantive disagreement.
HH: Let me ask you about this. This matters a lot to me. On Defense, who’s the bigger, better hawk – Hensarling or McCarthy?
CT: You know, I don’t have, I’m not going to be able to have a good sense to give you which way it is. My sense is that both are probably pretty equivalent on that front, because both states rely on a lot of federal government military Defense contracts, so they can’t be making those folks mad.
HH: Toughest question of all, objectively, Chuck Todd, not whether or not it’s going or happen, would the GOP be better off if John Boehner announced right now that he wasn’t running again, and that in effect this new majority leader is going to be in the inside pole position, in fact, with a head start, for Speaker?
CT: I don’t know if that’s good to have that fight before you know which party controls the Senate. I mean, I think realistically, you don’t want to have that fight, yet. Look, I talked to a bunch of conservatives, one who went on the record, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who said look, Cantor’s the first one gone. We need a whole change. He wants…
HH: That’s not a surprise. Hey, Chuck, hold on for me if you can for three more minutes. I want to hear about Huelskamp thing.
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HH: Chuck Todd, eight years ago, when Shadegg and Boehner squared off, they both came on this show for an hour, took questions, sort of surrogate for the public – no ambush, just straightforward. And I put out an open invitation to the five names, not the, you know, Sessions, Hensarling and McCarthy as well as Scalise and Roskam, who are in the mix for leader. And I said come on, spend an hour. Joe said Morning Joe’s trying to get them up as well.
HH: Do you think that they should do this sort of thing? I do. But I got back on already saying no, the member’s too busy, it’s only a week, we’ve got to talk to members. Do you think they ought to find time to talk to the public?
CT: Well, it’s interesting. I think if they want to be successful at being leader, they should do it. I know that they’re getting a lot of pressure. Boehner and McCarthy in particular are panicked at the idea of a drawn out, very public leadership fight, especially, you know, you brought up Shadegg-Boehner. You know, now we have a much more advanced social media. Now, you have a much more advanced conservative media, you know, just more dynamic, more diverse and all over the place. I think they’re concerned of these leadership fights getting too public, and too much dirty laundry being aired. So I understand sort of the cautiousness. But I have to say, if you want to be able to lead beyond the next six months, I think you want to be able to give some assurances to the public.
HH: That is exactly right.
CT: I think they should be there.
HH: I am very concerned that Kevin would want to keep this a closed process. Is that fair? Does he want it closed?
CT: Yeah, I think, look, if I were, look, I’m going to just be a strategist. Right, the shorter the process is and the more closed it is, advantage to somebody who’s already in leadership.
HH: But are they urging people…
CT: Just like, think about any election. That’s always the case with an incumbent, and he’s basically the de facto incumbent here. And by the way, Eric Cantor wholeheartedly endorsed him.
HH: I saw that.
CT: …which I think is the kiss of death.
CT: I think that was the kiss of death.
HH: You think Cantor’s endorsement was a kiss of death? Why?
CT: I do, because I think, I can’t tell you, there is this sense of okay, this is, we’ve got to listen to the pace here. They want some change. You know, look, I happen to believe immigration’s part of this, but there is this aspect of leadership’s out of touch.
CT: The establishment’s out of touch, so you know…
HH: Okay, quick exit, inside baseball, if Hensarling beats McCarthy, can McCarthy hang on as Whip? Or do they have to go get a new Whip?
CT: No, I think they have to get a new Whip. I’m surprised he’s doing this.
HH: And if there is a new Whip, is it going to be Scalise or Roskam?
CT: Well, you know, I think that my gut would say that it ends up being Roskam if Hensarling wins. But if Scalise has a better shot if McCarthy wins.
HH: We agree exactly.
CT: You get my drift? And it won’t be two conservatives or two, it’ll be one establishment, one conservative.
HH: I agree exactly. Chuck Todd, great pleasure, great show today. Thanks for staying up late and spending time with us.
End of interview.