WASHINGTON — — Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's sole Republican in Congress, said Friday he is seeking the chairmanship of an influential conservative caucus of lawmakers in the House of Representatives.
The Cockeysville lawmaker wants to lead the Republican Study Committee, a group that has grown with the wave of conservatives — including Harris — who swept the party to power in the chamber in 2010.
The caucus represents more than two-thirds of all House Republicans, giving its leader a powerful bloc with which to influence legislation. The position has become vacant in the reshuffling of GOP leaders after the unexpected primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
"I'm talking to members and we're assembling the whip team we're going to need," Harris said in an interview. "We're going forward as though the election is going to be held in the next few weeks."
A win would significantly raise Harris' profile in Washington. The Johns Hopkins-trained obstetric anesthesiologist represents a safe district for the GOP that includes the Eastern Shore and portions of Baltimore, Harford and Carroll counties.
It would also mean that deep-blue Maryland, more accustomed to congressional leaders who are Democrats, would have a top Republican as well.
That could prove particularly important if, as expected, the GOP retains control of the House after this fall's election.
"As a physician, Andy is the ideal member to lead the charge for an Obamacare replacement that will reduce health care costs for the American people," said Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican. "He has also proven himself to be a strong defender of conservative principles and constitutional government."
The RSC chairmanship opened up when Republicans tapped Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana to serve as House majority whip, the third-highest position in leadership. The whip spot was left vacant by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who moved up to House majority leader to replace Cantor.
Harris, who is in his second term, was appointed to the powerful House Appropriations Committee this year. He is a member of the 2010 class that some Republicans feel should be better represented in top House positions.
House conservatives created the Republican Study Committee in the 1970s to wield greater influence within the GOP conference. Its power waned in the 1990s with the rise of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but it has since re-emerged and become a central conduit for selling House conservatives on policy and legislation.
"It's still a very important faction of the House," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the co-author of a recent book on the 2012 election. "The Republican Study Committee represents a central gathering place for conservatives in the."
Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas is also running for the position, and there has been speculation that Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina also is interested. It's not clear whether the election will take place in coming weeks or in December, after the midterm elections.
Harris, 57, a former state senator, beat Republican incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest in the 2008 primary but lost in the general election that year to Democrat Frank Kratovil.
Harris ran again in 2010 and beat Kratovil by 12 percentage points.
From a seat that has become more Republican with the last round of redistricting, Harris has taken conservative positions on health care and financial issues and has frequently voted opposite more centrist leaders of his party.