In political terms, Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s slip-up this week when he suggested that the goal of the House’s special Benghazi committee was to damage Hillary Clinton was about as big as it gets. But the Majority Leader’s comments seem unlikely to derail his bid to be speaker.
There’s no question McCarthy handed Democrats a massive gift. On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called for the Benghazi panel to be disbanded in light of McCarthy’s comments, and Clinton called them “deeply distressing.”
Speaker John Boehner had to do damage control. “This investigation has never been about former Secretary of State Clinton and never will be,” Boehner, who will step down later this month, said in a statement Thursday.
And McCarthy himself tried Thursday for the second time in as many days to walk his remarks back, telling Fox News’s Bret Baier: “This committee was set up for one sole purpose: to find the truth on behalf of the families for four dead Americans. Now, I did not intend to imply in any way that that work is political. Of course it is not. Look at the way they have carried themselves out.”
But McCarthy also told Baier he predicts he’ll still become the next speaker. And right now, that looks a pretty safe bet.
Despite the scale of the Majority Leader’s unforced error, few voices in the party are suggesting his Benghazi comments will hamper his bid for the top job when the 247-person GOP caucus votes next Thursday.
To be sure, some conservative Republican members have been scathing about McCarthy’s too-candid remarks, in which he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity Tuesday: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable…But we put together a Benghazi special committee,” and now “her numbers are dropping.”
McCarthy “needs to reread the job description of speaker of the House if he thinks it’s to bring hearings that help us denigrate Democrats that are running for president,” Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie.
Rep. Justin Amash suggested the remarks could threaten McCarthy’s candidacy. “I think it’s a concern,” Amash said Wednesday.
And in a blog post earlier this week titled “You Want This Guy as Speaker?”, Erick Erickson, a key conservative activist, wrote that McCarthy had “handed Hillary Clinton a campaign commercial and gave the left-media their newest talking point.”
But those have been relatively isolated reactions. By and large, the party’s most conservative members have always been the least supportive of McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker, seeing him as too tied to the party establishment, and there are few signs of a broader revolt. When Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a prominent House conservative, said in an interview Thursday with msnbc that McCarthy should apologize for the comments and withdraw them, he took care to preface his remarks by saying he’s “very supportive” of McCarthy.
One reason that the comments seem to have done limited damage to McCarthy’s prospects is that over the last year or so, the Californian has moved to reassure conservatives that he’s responsive to their concerns. Days after then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in a Republican primary last year by a tea party favorite, McCarthy announced he no longer supported the federal Export-Import Bank, putting him in sync with House conservatives on a key issue for them. Later that summer, McCarthy was elected to succeed Cantor as Majority Leader.
And in the interview with Hannity where he slipped up on Benghazi, McCarthy pointedly gave his one-time ally Boehner a b-minus grade, saying Boehner hadn’t listened enough to conservatives.
There’s no doubt McCarthy is putting in the work. He reportedly spent last weekend calling every member of the House GOP to sound out their concerns and talk about what he can do for them.
McCarthy has also benefited from a lack of serious challengers for the speaker post. Only Rep. Daniel Webster, a conservative back-bencher from Florida, has announced he’ll compete with McCarthy for the job (SEE UPDATE BELOW). When Webster challenged Boehner earlier this year, he got a total of 12 votes.
Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, a former member of the leadership team who was mentioned by some members as a potential challenger to McCarthy, would have been a more formidable opponent. But Roskam announced Wednesday he won’t run for any leadership post.
UPDATE, 2:07 pm: Rep. Jason Chaffetz plans to announce a bid for speaker, Politico reports. As noted above, Chaffetz, a conservative who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has called on McCarthy to apologize for and retract his comments, but has added that he’s “very supportive” of the majority leader. A spokesperson for the congressman did not immediately return MSNBC’s request for comment.