When Harriet M. Hageman announced her 2022 primary challenge against Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, House Republican leaders were quick to support her bid to oust a colleague whose convictions made former President Donald J. Trump a pariah in her own party.
But one member of the leadership remained rather mute: Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, another Republican. He considered supporting Ms. Hageman a violation of what he calls his 11th commandment, borrowed from President Ronald Reagan: “Do not speak ill of another Republican.” He waited until Mrs. Hageman defeated Mrs. Cheney to throw his support behind her.
Mr. Scalise, a longtime rival of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, is now preparing his own bid for the post. He presented himself as a man in a unique position to unite Republicans at a time when they are deeply divided and demoralized after the historic ouster of Mr. McCarthy last week.
“We are so divided; he can unite this Congress,” Representative Lance Gooden of Texas said of Mr. Scalise.
His candidacy is the culmination of a steady political ascent for the deeply conservative Republican who once described himself, according to a local columnist, as “like David Duke without the baggage.”
In Louisiana, Mr. Scalise represents the First Congressional District, a place where the fossil fuel industry is king, and where conservatism is rooted in a myth of rugged individualism — and, at least in some quarters, the politics of racial resentment. That’s where Mr. Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was elected to the state legislature in 1989.
Mr. Scalise suggested that his life and political career were influenced by these forces. He he made a remark comparing himself to Mr. Duke to Stephanie Grace, now a columnist for The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, when she first met Mr. Scalise in the 1990s. She wrote that Mr. Scalise’s point “was that the actual government philosophy that Duke espoused was not far from what was becoming mainstream conservative thought, what with suspicion of taxes, handouts and safety nets like welfare.
(Over the weekend, Mrs. Grace supported by Mr. Scalise for speaker.)
Decades later, these views are as powerful as ever in the Republican Party as Mr. Scalise is facing off against Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, founder of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, for the speakership.
Mr. Scalise is on the run despite being diagnosed with blood cancer just weeks ago, for which he is undergoing treatment. His supporters insist that has not diminished his ability for the job.
A key point in Mr. Scalise’s pitch to his colleagues is that he is a fundraising powerhouse, second only to Mr. McCarthy. He raised nearly $170 million during his congressional career to help Republicans win elections. In the midterm elections of 2022. Scalise spent 112 days on the road campaigning for members and candidates. Over the past five years, his office said, he has given $7.2 million directly to Republican members and candidates and transferred $50 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“Kevin McCarthy has been fantastic in raising the resources our conference needs,” said Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri. “The only other person behind it is Steve Scalise.” Ms. Wagner, a longtime ally of Mr. Scalise, said she accompanied him on fund-raising trips where he visited more than a dozen counties in three days.
During the past year, Mr. Scalise has been marginalized by Mr. McCarthy, who privately described him to colleagues as ineffective, withdrawn and reluctant to take positions, and excluded him from all important decisions.
The dynamic was frustrating for Mr. Scalise at the time. But now, his allies believe that the fact that he was not included in the debt ceiling negotiations with President Biden, which ultimately proved to be the catalyst for Mr. McCarthy, could make him a viable option for hard-right rebels against the former speaker.
While most far-right Republicans are expected to back Mr. Jordan on Tuesday when they are scheduled to select a speaker nominee, Mr. Scalise is pleading with them to back him as their second choice. Under current Republican conference rules, whoever gets a majority on that secret ballot will be the party’s nominee when the full House meets to elect a new president, which is now expected on Wednesday.
Lawmakers allied with Mr. Jordan are trying to raise that threshold to unanimity, which would put Mr. Scalise at a disadvantage. For now, however, Mr. Scalise has told right-wing lawmakers that while he wants him to be their first choice, he hopes that if he emerges as a candidate, they will at least vote for him on the ground.
His attitude towards other Republicans is simpler. It would be more difficult for Mr. Jordan, who was endorsed by Mr. Trump to be speaker, to help vulnerable Republicans win districts that President Biden won in 2020, especially when Mr. Jordan endorsed primary opponents for 12 sitting members of Congress.
Mr. Scalise arrived on Capitol Hill in 2008, after winning a special election to replace Representative Bobby Jindal, who had been elected governor.
A political animal since childhood, he came to Washington wanting to be a part of it all: He joined a Bible study group and the congressional baseball team, where he would play in a Louisiana State University baseball jersey and buy tickets for all his staff members. and their children. He ran for a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he became a strong ally of the oil and gas industry. And he quickly became the recruiting chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and then chairman of the Republican Study Committee, then the largest group of conservative House Republicans.
Mr. Scalise, the first person in his family to graduate from college, grew up in Jefferson Parish, a suburb just outside New Orleans, a region that saw population growth in the latter half of the last century as white residents fled desegregation. city. Born to Sicilian immigrants, Mr. Scalise told staff members stories about how his ancestors worked in the sugar fields of Garyville, La.
His rise in Washington was rapid. By 2014, he had risen to the third position in the House. Then the blogger published the story that as a state legislator in 2002. Scalise was speaking at a meeting of a white nationalist group founded by Mr. Duke, a revelation that threatened to derail his political career.
Under intense pressure from Democrats to back down, Mr. Scalise said the speech was “I regret the mistake“, claiming he didn’t understand what the group was when he accepted the invitation. At the time, he received significant support from his old friend Cedric Richmond, then a congressman from New Orleans, who is Black.
“I don’t think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body,” Mr. Richmond said at the time. (Mr. Richmond could not be reached for comment on Mr. Scalise’s candidacy for speaker.)
2020 Scalise voted to remove Confederate statues from the US Capitol, breaking with most of his party, including Mr Jordan.
However, Mr. Scalise usually sides with the Republicans. He pushed hard for the passage of legislation in 2015 that resulted in the lifting of a 40-year ban on oil exports, a huge victory for the oil industry. He also played a major role in 2017 in pushing through the Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax cut bill, which primarily benefited large corporations, multi-millionaires and other wealthy individuals. A supporter of Mr. Trump, he voted to nullify the results of the 2020 election and for months afterward persistently promoted the lie that the election was rigged.
In 2017, Scalise was seriously wounded when a gunman, upset about Mr. Trump’s election, opened fire on members of the Republican congressional baseball team at practice. The bullet tore through his internal organs, shattered bones and caused massive internal bleeding, leaving Mr. Scalise in critical condition.
He had to undergo multiple surgeries and months of work in an inpatient rehabilitation center to learn to walk again. He returned to the Capitol three months later, walking gingerly with two canes.
“I am definitely a living example that miracles really do happen,” he said at the time. Today, Mr. Scalise appears to be almost completely cured. With the help of a raised sole shoe, his gait is now normal.
In August, Mr. Scalise announced that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer, but that he planned to return to Washington to continue working as he underwent several months of treatment.
Colleagues said that in the past few days part of his address to them was that the treatment is going better than his doctors expected and that he is fit to do the job.
“They changed his treatment and shortened it to three months, from six,” said Ms. Wagner, a close friend. Both Mr. Scalise’s wife, Jennifer, and his doctors, she added, “agreed that he was more than healthy enough for this challenge.”
It is not clear how much his illness and treatment have taken on Mr. Scalise. He began wearing a heavy mask at news conferences and on the House floor, a striking shift for a Republican who eschewed face coverings as the coronavirus pandemic raged, once calling federal mask mandates “political theater to mask Democrats.”
Richard Fausset contributed reporting from Atlanta.