House Speaker Newt Gingrich was at the peak of his power when, in the spring of 1996, he placed this call to a former Wisconsin State Senator, Jim Harsdorf.
Harsdorf knew what was coming – but he was still surprised the Speaker was taking such an interest. He was running for Congress in the district then represented by Rep. Steve Gunderson, who had announced plans to retire during his 1994 campaign. But with Republicans in the majority, Gunderson was reconsidering. Gingrich was calling to push Harsdorf out.
“Steve finds himself in kind of an awkward position because with the changes on the Ag[riculture] Committee he’s kind of in a different world,” Gingrich told Harsdorf.
He also raised a delicate question: Missouri Rep. Bill Emerson had been diagnosed with cancer, with a grim prognosis, and Gunderson was next in line to chair the powerful Agriculture Committee.
There was a question, Gingrich said, “whether he’ll survive in the long run or whether he’ll be well enough” to serve. “All of us are praying for him.”
“Steve might be the de facto chair for a good bit of the time and very well might en d up being chairman,” he told Harsdorf.
The episode – and the audio recording above — offer a rare glimpse of Gingrich as a non-ideological, behind-the-scenes operator, working in this case to keep a conservative insurgent out of the House in favor of an Establishment Republican moderate, who was also the only openly-gay Republican in the House, having been outed in 1994.
Harsdorf knew what was coming, and he was prepared, his former communications director Blane Huppert told BuzzFeed. He pushed back on the Speaker’s points, and made the case that Gunderson couldn’t win, because he’d be pilloried for breaking his promise to retire.
Harsdorf also recorded the telephone call.
“It seemed prudent at the time,” said Huppert. “If you’re able to get the Speaker of the House calling to say, ‘Can you please get out of the race,’ that seems like an opportunity to run against the party in the primary.”
Harsford and his staff, Huppert said, were also surprised that Speaker Gingrich seemed to be inserting himself – if fairly delicately – into the situation.
“It seemed odd at the time,” said Huppert, who supplied the audio recording to BuzzFeed. “A Republican contest in Wisconsin: it seemed like we were getting a ot of attention from the speakers office.”
In particular, Gingrich was defending one of the most moderate Republicans in the House against a more conservative challenger.
“From a policy point of view, it seemed odd that Newt was getting involved,” said Huppert.
There were ordinary reasons for Gingrich to be interested in Gunderson’s career: The two had served in leadership roles together before Gingrich became speaker.
But there was also a reason that wasn’t then public: Gingrich was carrying on an affair with a Gunderson aide, Callista Bisek, whose job could have depended on Gunderson’s remaining in the House.
Gingrich spokesman RC Hammond declined to comment on the situation, other than to raise questions about whether the recording was legal. (Recording with one-party consent is legal in Wisconsin.)
In the call, the former State Senator gave no ground.
“My concern is that I think Steve has a tough road,” Harsdorf told Gingrich, warning of “a negative backlash” from voters who “would see it as pure power politics taking me out of the race.”
“Steve knows he couldn’t really justify a primary,” he said, and the Speaker appeared to back off.
“I’m not trying to pressure you — I’m just trying to explore what the situation is,” he said.
Gunderson never got into the race, but Harsdorf lost the seat to Ron Kind, who represents the district today.