Almost immediately after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shocked the political world with his unprecedented resignation announcement, attention turned to his successor. Party leaders, fearing a leadership vacuum, wasted no time in making clear that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was poised to get a promotion.
But with four days remaining until the behind-closed-doors, secret-ballot election, uncertainty reigns.
Last week, McCarthy did himself no favors, accidentally telling the truth about his party's Benghazi scheme and then clumsily trying (and failing) to clean up his mess. But the more Republicans were confronted with doubts about whether the Californian is genuinely up for such an important job, the more they were confronted with the realization that he had no credible rivals for the post.
At least, he didn't. With only a few days left to campaign, the dynamic has changed.
Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah has thrown a curveball into the race for House speaker, officially announcing on Sunday that he’ll take on House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy for the high-profile position.
Chaffetz, who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, painted himself as an outsider and argued on “Fox News Sunday” that he can better “bridge the divide” between moderate and far-right GOPers.
To be sure, the odds do not appear to favor the Utah Republican, who has even less experience than the inexperienced McCarthy. Chaffetz, however, has at least chaired a committee -- something McCarthy, incredibly, has never done -- and the Utahan has broader support among social conservatives in the GOP caucus.
In the meantime, the simple realization that McCarthy seems to lack the skills necessary to be a competent and effective House Speaker appears to be dawning on a growing number of party insiders. The fears that started as whispers continue to increase in volume.
In July, it was fairly common to hear the Republican establishment and much of the media see Donald Trump atop 2016 GOP polling and ask, "Sure he's leading now, but can he sustain this advantage into August?" And then in August, they'd ask, "Sure he's leading now, but can he sustain this advantage into September?" And then in September, they'd ask, "Sure he's leading now, but can he sustain this advantage into October?"
It's October. Here are the latest national results from the Pew Research Center.
1. Donald Trump: 25%
2. Ben Carson: 16%
3. Carly Fiorina: 8%
3. Marco Rubio: 8%
5. Ted Cruz: 6%
6. Jeb Bush: 4%
7. Mike Huckabee: 2%
7. Rand Paul: 2%
The remaining candidates are at 1% or below in the Pew findings. (Note, this is the first survey of the cycle from the Pew Research Center, so I didn't include figures as to whether the candidates' support was increasing or decreasing.)
In addition to Trump's role as the frontrunner -- a role he hasn't relinquished since surging to the top in the early summer -- pay particular attention to Jeb Bush's surprisingly poor showing. It may be an outlier, but if the Florida Republican's national backing has dropped to just 4% -- a number, ironically, Bush has placed great significance in -- it suggests his standing may be reaching the point of no return.
Indeed, though John McCain and Mitt Romney hit rough patches before securing their party's nomination in 2008 and 2012, respectively, neither one ever came close to a 4% floor.
And while national results like these will give much of the GOP establishment heart palpitations, the news is no better at the state level.
First up from the God Machine this week a look at the taxpayer-funded Congressional Prayer Caucus that may seem hard to explain in a country that honors the separation of church and state.
There are, to be sure, all kinds of congressional caucuses. Wikipedia has a list of them, and it totals 246. Some of the names are probably familiar to many Americans -- the Congressional Black Caucus, the Blue Dog Coalition, the Tea Party Caucus, etc. -- but many more are obscure. Ordinarily, most of these semi-formal groups of lawmakers keep a fairly low profile.
But this week, USA Today's Paul Singer highlighted the congressional caucus that exists to "defend the role of (mostly) Christian faith and prayer in the U.S. government."
The caucus was created by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., in 2005, and now includes about 90 members of the House, nearly all Republicans, one U.S. senator and one paid staff member. [...] Like other congressional caucuses, several members kick in shares from their taxpayer-funded office accounts to cover the approximately $50,000 annual salary of the staff member, Amy Vitale, who tracks legislation, drafts letters and generally supports the work of the caucus.
The Prayer Caucus also has an outside non-profit organization that supports its efforts, as are many other caucuses. The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation operates out of a Chesapeake, Va., building Forbes owns that also houses his campaign office. His wife, Shirley Forbes, is one of three unpaid directors of the foundation. The foundation has one paid staff member, executive director Lea Carawan, but operates entirely on private funds.
As odd as this may seem, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, subsidized with public funds, occasionally plays a role akin to an activist group, working to "extend the reach of faith and prayer in public life." In practice, that may mean, as Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) explained, promoting legislation to reflect "American, Christian values," or its efforts may also include national outreach to local officials to "protect" their interpretation of "religious liberty."
The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, meanwhile, has a mission statement that says it intends to create a "movement" to "reverse" a trend that includes "negating the influence that the Christian faith had on establishing the principles upon which our liberties are secured."
As for whether the blurred lines between religion and government are legally problematic, to my knowledge, the constitutionality of the Congressional Prayer Caucus hasn't been tested. It's not clear who would even have standing to bring such a challenge, though it'd likely make for an interesting case.
Rachel Maddow reports on the closing of DMV offices in Alabama, ostensibly due to budget problems, but the closures are in predominantly African-American counties, and a driver's license is the most common form of ID used to comply with the state's new voter ID law. watch
Ari Melber, MSNBC chief legal correspondent, talks with Rachel Maddow about his interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and the fascinating insights he learned about the justice's views on the constitutionality of the death penalty. watch
Rachel Maddow looks more closely as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's peculiar speaking, and notes a new report confirmed by NBC News that Congressman Jason Chaffetz will challenge McCarthy for the House speakership as McCarthy has suffered a political setback after accidentally revealing the Republican strategy behind the Benghazi... watch
* Syria: "President Barack Obama is rejecting Russia's military campaign in Syria, saying it fails to distinguish between terrorist groups and moderate rebel forces with a legitimate interest in a negotiated end to the civil war."
* This seemed new: "President Obama vowed Friday that he would not sign another short-term funding measure, pushing lawmakers to craft a long-term budget agreement."
* Obama's focus hasn't changed: "For the second day in a row, President Obama spoke forcefully about the scourge of gun violence in America."
* VW: "A bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from at least 30 states and the District of Columbia are organizing a fast-moving investigation into the possibilities of consumer fraud and environmental violations by the German automaker Volkswagen."
* A sigh of relief on the East Coast? "A powerful and slow-moving hurricane that battered the Bahamas on Friday, causing severe flooding and widespread wind damage, is now forecast to stay out at sea as it moves north, largely sparing the East Coast a direct hit."
* Afghanistan: "Thirteen people, including six American service members, were killed early Friday when a U.S. C-130 transport plane crashed while taking off from an airport in Afghanistan, a U.S. military official said.... A cause for the crash has not been determined. The military official said there were no reports of hostile activity in the area at the time of the crash."
* Not good: "The director of the Secret Service knew that unflattering, private information about a congressman was circulating among agency staff members before it was leaked to the news media, contrary to an earlier statement made to federal investigators, according to two government officials briefed on the investigation."
Yesterday afternoon, as much of the nation was still learning about the tragic mass-shooting in Oregon, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said on Twitter, "Praying for Umpqua Community College, the victims, and families impacted by this senseless tragedy."
It was simple and unobjectionable. Today, however, the former governor adopted a slightly different tone.
At a South Carolina event, a questioner suggested there might be less violence, such as the murders in Oregon, if only we started merging religion and public schools. Bush responded:
"We're in a difficult time in our country and I don't think more government is necessarily the answer to this. I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else.
"It's very sad to see, but I resist the notion, and I did, I had this challenge as governor, 'cause, we had, look, stuff happens. There's always a crisis. And the impulse is always to do something, and it's not necessarily the right thing to do."
I suspect different audiences will have competing reactions to comments like these. For some, it was a callous way to describe senseless violence that causes mass casualties. For others, it was more of a convenient excuse to ignore efforts to combat gun violence. Perhaps it was a little of both. [Update: See below.]
After the event, Bush spoke with reporters, one of whom asked whether his comments were a mistake. "No," he responded, "that wasn't a mistake. I said exactly what I said. Explain to me what I said wrong."
When the reporter noted his use of the phrase "stuff happens" in describing a massacre, Bush, obviously annoyed, quickly added, "Things happen. 'Things.' Is that better?"
As recently as two years ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) made his favorite case for doing absolutely nothing about the climate crisis. First, the far-right senator argued “government can’t change the weather,” suggesting the Floridian's understanding of the issue lacked maturity.
But Rubio then added, "There are other countries that are polluting in the atmosphere much greater than we are at this point. China and India, they're not going to stop doing what they're doing."
This year, the Republican repeated the talking point at a Koch brothers event: "[A]s far as I can see, China and India and other developing countries are going to continue to burn anything they can get their hands on.”
This rationale for simply allowing the crisis to continue with no American leadership at all was always bankrupt, but last week, it started collapsing in new ways. China, for example, announced its first-ever commitment to a cap-and-trade policy -- a step Rubio and others on the far-right insisted China would never take.
Under growing pressure to join in an international accord to battle climate change, India on Thursday announced its long-term plan to reduce its rate of planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution and to aggressively ramp up its production of solar power, hydropower and wind energy.
So, when Rubio said China and India are "not going to stop doing what they're doing," he had it largely backwards.