House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has a simple goal: He wants to be House speaker in the next Congress. The California Republican also has a simple problem interfering with this goal: McCarthy currently lacks the support he needs to earn the gavel.
To that end, the GOP leader is scrambling, in public and in private, desperately trying to line up backers and win over intra-party detractors. The good news for McCarthy is that he doesn’t have a rival, which theoretically should make it easier for him to win.
The bad news for McCarthy is that the larger conversation is starting to shift. The Washington Post ran a report late last week under a headline that read, “Who could be speaker, if not Kevin McCarthy.”
What’s clear is that Kevin McCarthy’s math for becoming speaker is looking quite difficult. What’s less clear is who could fill the vacuum and take over if McCarthy (R-Calif.) can’t get the votes. Five House Republicans have come out firmly against the House minority leader — a number that could be enough to defeat his candidacy in the narrowly GOP-controlled House. But there’s been very little in the way of putting forward an alternative. Part of that could be they simply don’t know who it is, while part of it could be that they want to avoid drawing attention to the would-be usurper ahead of the Jan. 3 vote.
To be sure, as of this morning, McCarthy is the only announced contender. But there’s ample evidence that should probably make the incumbent minority leader nervous.
Republican Rep. Ralph Norman, one of McCarthy’s most notable GOP critics, was asked last week about who he and others in the anti-McCarthy contingent have in mind for the office. “It will be apparent in the coming weeks who that person will be,” the South Carolinian replied. “I will tell you, it will be interesting.”
A day later, Republican Rep. Ben Cline of Virginia — who hadn’t previously appeared on lists of McCarthy opponents — appeared on a radio show and said, “We have to ask what’s going to be different, and if it’s not anything substantive, then why should we be voting for Speaker McCarthy?” As part of the same appearance, Cline seemed to suggest outgoing Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York could be a credible contender.
The same day, Politico reported that retiring Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan has been mentioned as a possible compromise pick who could garner Democratic support. The chatter reached Donald Trump, leading the former president to denounce the idea by way of his social media platform.
Republican Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, meanwhile, another one of McCarthy’s unwavering opponents, told Steve Bannon last week that there are “quiet discussions” underway with potential candidates for the House Speaker. “Those can become public once the reality sets in that it’s not going to be Kevin,” Good said, adding there are 10 to 12 GOP members who are not ready to support McCarthy — a total that would almost certainly derail his chances.
The point is not that a rival candidate is poised to make a big announcement or that it’s time to assess their chances. Rather, what matters is the fact that this conversation is happening at all.
The minority leader wants the prevailing question to be, “What does Kevin McCarthy have to do is seal the deal?” Instead, the principal topic of conversation seems to be, “As McCarthy struggles, who will Republicans turn to instead?”
Part of McCarthy’s website last week identified him as the “House Speaker-elect.” That was premature in ways that might soon prove embarrassing.