It was just over a week ago when House majority leader Kevin McCarthy first considered dropping out of the race for speaker.
The problems began on Tuesday, September 29, when the California Republican did a day-long media blitz as he campaigned to win support of the House GOP conference. The day ended with an appearance on Fox News’s Hannity, where McCarthy, pressed by Sean Hannity to show what House Republicans had done for conservatives, cited the Benghazi select committee’s findings on Hillary Clinton’s email and how those had hurt the Democrat’s presidential campaign. Democrats jumped all over the gaffe.
McCarthy calls it a “stumble” and says in an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the backlash from House Republicans after the Hannity appearance was the first real indication that he would have a real fight for the speakership. He stayed in the race, but it became, in his words, an “uphill battle.”
McCarthy went on to meet with the Freedom Caucus, a rump group of dissatisfied right-wing Republicans who had been behind the effort to oust John Boehner from the speaker’s chair. He made his pitch, but most of the caucus decided to back one of their own, Florida congressman Daniel Webster. That was about 30 or 40 votes—not enough to deny McCarthy the majority within the GOP conference, but plenty to deny him the majority in a floor vote with the entire House of Representatives.
“At the end of the day, maybe I could have won,” McCarthy tells me. But the risk of going to the floor without the votes was too high. McCarthy wouldn’t say when exactly he made the decision to drop out, only that it was “a day or two” before his surprise announcement Thursday.
What about the rumor swirling around the Internet that McCarthy was having an extramarital affair? Some commentators claimed to have knowledge, through anonymous sources, of such an affair. And one anti-McCarthy congressman, Walter Jones, wrote a letter to the GOP conference chair requesting that any leadership candidates who had committed “misdeeds” since joining Congress withdraw from the race. Was this rumor part of the reason McCarthy decided to drop out?
“No,” he said, curtly. “It was not.”
McCarthy had been seen as a likely successor to Boehner, and perhaps more personally popular with the rank-and-file than the current speaker. After all, McCarthy had been the House GOP’s recruitment chair in 2010, the year Republicans took control of the House, and he’d recruited many of the people whose support he’d need for a speakership bid. What’s changed in the House conference since then?
“It’s the climate,” he says. “People are angry.”
They are angry, particularly at any Republican in a leadership role. The rift has long existed within the party between “grassroots” conservatives and the establishment perceived as out of touch. It wasn’t until 2014, though, when the anger boiled over into a shakeup of House leadership. Virginia’s Eric Cantor, then the majority leader with his eyes on the speakership, lost his Republican primary to college professor Dave Brat.
The upset stunned the political world, and the revolution may have just been beginning. In July 2015, North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows formally began an effort to oust Boehner from the speaker’s chair. Just a couple months later, Boehner announced he would resign his speakership and his seat in Congress. And just a couple weeks after that, the heir apparent for the job, McCarthy, was out of the running as well, unable to overcome a deep rift.
There are parallels here to the GOP presidential primary, where Republicans voters seem cool to the governors and senators running and are (for the moment) drawn instead to outsiders like Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Conservative dissatisfaction with congressional leadership extends to the Senate as well, where majority leader Mitch McConnell maintains better control of his position but is increasingly seen as unwilling to engage in political battles.
A recent Fox News poll demonstrates how frustrated Republicans are with their own party leaders: 62 percent of GOP primary voters said they felt “betrayed” by the party’s congressional leadership.