Last week, GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California made a bold proclamation about his political future on the White House grounds following a meeting with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office.
“I’m looking forward to being the Speaker in the next Congress,” he said.
Democrats currently control the House of Representatives by a slender 219-211 margin, and Republicans, buoyed by redistricting advantages that will play in their favor, sense that the majority they lost after 2018 midterm elections is easily within reach.
McCarthy in 2015 withdrew from the race to succeed then-House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, paving the way for the elevation of then-Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Now, he could erase unified Democratic control over the federal government by holding the speaker’s gavel.
McCarthy’s potential ascension would be the culmination of years of corralling his caucus behind former President Donald Trump, whom he’s displayed deep fealty to, most recently in the removal of House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her leadership role.
After Cheney went decidedly off-script from the GOP playbook in continuing to challenge the former president’s debunked election claims, McCarthy helped engineer her ouster in favor of Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a Trump loyalist.
McCarthy, alongside Stefanik and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, hopes to redirect the party’s focus to opposing Biden’s legislative agenda, notably the proposed $2 trillion infrastructure bill.
However, despite the pronouncements of party unity, McCarthy’s path to the speakership remains tenuous, from the unpredictability of Trump and internal GOP dissent following Cheney’s ouster to McCarthy’s balancing act with the most conservative elements of his caucus and Democratic efforts to retain their majority in 2022.
McCarthy gets a mixed reception from Trumpworld
Trump continues to hold immense sway over conservatives, and House Republicans delivered an easy victory for Stefanik in becoming the party’s Conference Chair last week, despite her having a more moderate voting record than Cheney.
Loyalty to Trump, which Stefanik displayed in lending credence to the former president’s grievances regarding the 2020 presidential election, is a true tenet of being accepted in his orbit.
Only weeks after the January 6 Capitol riot and Trump’s impeachment by the House, McCarthy made a sojourn to the former president’s residence at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, even taking a smiling photo with him.
However, according to a report from Insider’s Tom LoBianco and Warren Rojas, some loyalists in Trumpworld view McCarthy with a heap of skepticism.
A Trump advisor recently told the former president that McCarthy likely wouldn’t lock up the requisite number of votes to obtain the speakership if the GOP regains the majority in 2022.
“He’s left too many people unhappy and unsettled and time is not on his side,” the advisor told Insider.
However, a veteran GOP strategist with close ties to Trump who spoke to Insider noted that McCarthy was a stellar fundraiser who backed the former president in a very public way in ousting Cheney from her leadership role.
“He’s not gotten crosswise with Trump,” the strategist said.
Trump could endorse McCarthy if the GOP were to retake the House, which would likely seal the race for the Bakersfield Republican, but if he somehow falls out of favor with the president, then all bets are off.
Grumblings from within the GOP could cause long-term damage
GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois has been a pointed critic of Trump’s conduct on January 6, and alongside Cheney, was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former president for his role in provoking the Capitol attack.
Kinzinger, who was first elected to the House in 2010, was dismayed by Cheney’s removal from leadership.
“Liz may lose, and MAGA-lago may celebrate,” he tweeted on May 12. “But I predict that the history books of the future will not celebrate. They will say this was the low point of the Republican Party.”
The congressman has increasingly directed his ire toward McCarthy.
He added: “Liz stayed consistent. She didn’t look for opportunities to attack Jan. 6, but as conference chair she does press and is naturally asked about it. She responds truthfully. Kevin? He felt threatened, so instead of fighting for his job he went on offense against Liz.”
Kinzinger then said that McCarthy wants to be speaker so badly that he’ll do anything to appease the far-right Freedom Caucus, filled with bombastic Trump loyalists like Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Louie Gohmert of Texas.
“Kevin … made the determination that if he appeased the Trump crowd, he could raise money and take the credit, when he was up for speaker,” Kinzinger wrote. “He also (wrongly) assumes that people like me will vote for him for speaker, but the legislative terrorists in the Freedom Club wouldn’t, so he needs to be all in with them.”
Conservative Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, a surprise vote to keep Cheney in leadership, complained about the way GOP leaders treated her.
“Liz Cheney was canceled today for speaking her mind and disagreeing with the narrative that President Trump was putting forward,” Buck told reporters.
Buck said that many GOP voters have informed him that the party will suffer by continuing to promote Trump’s false election claims.
“To suggest that the American people in 2022 won’t consider the fact that we were unwilling to stand up to a narrative that the election was stolen, I think will be taken into consideration with their vote,” he said.
Stefanik was not a universal choice among conservatives
Several members who were exasperated by Cheney’s broadsides against Trump were not completely behind Stefanik being pushed as the top candidate.
Freshman firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia unsuccessfully called for last week’s vote to be postponed so more candidates could potentially run to replace Cheney.
“Currently, we only have one member running for chair,” she tweeted last week. “I want a break before we vote on a replacement. Options are good and so are conservative votes.”
Before Stefanik was elevated to leadership, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas also criticized her voting record before announcing his own bid to challenge her as Conference Chair.
“We must avoid putting in charge Republicans who campaign as Republicans but then vote for and advance the Democrats’ agenda once sworn in,” he wrote in a blistering letter. “We should either choose someone who reflects our conservative values, or perhaps leave the position vacant and focus not on a position most people do not care about, but instead a strong agenda based on defending Americans from the radical left.”
Despite Roy’s conservative record, he lost to Stefanik in a 134-46 secret ballot vote on May 14.
However, the 46 votes for Roy are notable given Stefanik’s support from both Trump and McCarthy.
Although McCarthy has the speaker’s gavel in sight, his own party could block him from getting it if there are lingering issues with his leadership style regarding the Stefanik vote.
Democrats still control the House
Even political opponents have conceded that Nancy Pelosi has been a highly effective House speaker, muscling through landmark pieces of legislation like former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package championed by Biden.
Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress, a major achievement for the party, but one fraught with caution.
After losing multiple swing districts in the 2020 election, despite Biden running strong at the top of the ticket, Democrats are hoping to defy conventional wisdom and maintain control of the House next year.
Unlike 2010, the party is much more ideologically cohesive and overwhelmingly concentrated in urban and suburban districts, with a smaller contingent of moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog Democrats than in years past.
While GOP-led gerrymandering will cause issues for some Democratic incumbents, the nationwide Republican collapse in population-heavy suburban areas gives Democrats a chance to keep their majority, if they can minimize losses in many of the states that are set to lose congressional districts.
However, it will still be tough for Democrats to shore up vulnerable incumbents in GOP-leaning terrain.
McCarthy knows this, which is why he feels confident about this chances, despite Biden’s continued popularity with most voters.
Democrats will try their best to shift the political winds in their favor, though, so McCarthy’s ultimate wish isn’t going to come easy.