Inside Kevin McCarthy’s Tortured Battle to Be House Speaker

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Kevin McCarthy has already survived the immediate fallout from the release of private comments he made candidly criticizing Donald Trump and some House conservatives. Now it’s just a matter of surviving the radiation.

Aside from some barbs from some of McCarthy’s most fervent critics, the aggressively pro-Trump House GOP conference has closed ranks around its leader this week, after McCarthy said his stated plan to tell Trump to resign after Jan. 6 was taken out of context.

Most importantly, the ex-president himself has expressed support for the man he often refers to as “My Kevin.”

Tucker Carlson Torches Kevin McCarthy as a ‘Puppet of the Democratic Party’

But the shrugs from House Republicans could quickly turn to wrath if Trump decides he’s had enough with McCarthy—something GOP insiders privately say remains a real possibility.

In that case, the California Republican, who has led the conference since 2019, may face an insurmountable roadblock to his long quest for the speakership. And even if Trump remains on the sidelines, the GOP leader may already have more of a problem than he recognizes.

Two sources close to House conservatives told The Daily Beast that McCarthy would have real difficulty during a potential Speaker vote on the House floor next year if Republicans perform worse than they hope in this fall’s midterm elections.

If a theoretical GOP majority had less than a 20-vote advantage over Democrats, these sources said, McCarthy’s critics would have outsized sway. One source noted there are a number of hard noes—likely in the “high single digits”—who won’t vote for the leader, as well as another 10 swing votes who would likely vote against him if they could deny McCarthy the speakership.

“If the margin is less than 20,” this source said, “they should be very concerned.”

Pretty much every Republican acknowledges, however, that the math for McCarthy taking the gavel isn’t static. Several GOP sources told The Daily Beast that if Republicans ride a “red wave” of 30 or more flipped seats, McCarthy’s speaker vote would probably be a coronation, not a challenge.

Much of the calculus will rely on Trump. As one Trump White House source put it, McCarthy has always seemed to believe he’s tighter with Trump than Trump believes he is with McCarthy. One of the sources close to House conservatives noted that basically every Republican waited to see what Trump would say about McCarthy’s comments before they themselves spoke out.

McCarthy Said Gaetz Was ‘Putting People in Jeopardy’ With Post-Jan. 6 Rhetoric

With Trump signaling a willingness to move past this bit of apostasy from McCarthy, most GOP lawmakers have been satisfied to ignore the minority leader’s comments—artfully and carefully.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), a former member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, said those remarks are “irrelevant at this point” and said “emotions were high” at the time.”

“Trump,” Loudermilk said, “doesn’t seem to have a problem with it.”

The tapes—released by New York Times reporters Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin, as part of their upcoming book, This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future—represent one more obstacle that McCarthy doesn’t need as he tries to consolidate control of the conference ahead of an expected GOP takeover in November.

Since the beginning of the congressional session last January, the California Republican has struggled to contain the political turmoil and interpersonal toxicity roiling the House GOP. And he has faced withering public criticism from Democrats and mostly private gripes from Republicans for his refusal to discipline his most far-right members for their—to put it euphemistically—incendiary rhetoric.

McCarthy’s handling of these simmering controversies has raised doubt about how firmly he would control the unruly elements of his party should they gain the majority. That is, if he would try to control them at all. (A spokesperson for McCarthy declined to comment for this story.)

But the GOP leader still has considerable power. He is a prolific fundraiser and is the party’s undisputed architect of what members expect will be a decisive victory in November. Any lawmaker who crosses him now will risk having their influence considerably diminished if Republicans find themselves back in the majority after four years this coming January.

The combination of self-preservation, the cover provided by Trump, and a desire to not let anything distract the GOP from their midterm message might explain why lawmakers were so quick to dismiss the explosive recordings.

McCarthy Said Gaetz Was ‘Putting People in Jeopardy’ With Post-Jan. 6 Rhetoric

Not only did Republicans refrain from attacking McCarthy, some dismissed the entire issue as an overhyped distraction, attacking anti-Trump Republicans and the press for even raising it.

At a members-only GOP meeting on Wednesday morning, McCarthy received a standing ovation as he defended himself. Members streamed out of the private Capitol Hill Club proclaiming that McCarthy would be the next Speaker of the House.

A staunch pro-Trump Republican, Rep. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, told reporters as he left the meeting that he “absolutely” supports McCarthy. “Unless you’re a member of the press, nobody gives a damn about January 6,” Grothman said. “I don’t see any great fissures in the conference.”

Grothman then not only absolved the GOP leader—but went so far as to claim that he didn’t actually say what he is being criticized for saying.

“You can’t believe anything you read in the paper today,” Grothman said. When a reporter noted that McCarthy was on tape, the Republican simply said that his words might have been “spliced.”

Of course, his words were not spliced. And they were damning enough to warrant stern rebukes in the eyes of the most vehemently pro-Trump Republicans.

If McCarthy’s private comments are to impede his speakership dreams in any way, comments from MAGA loyalists like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) might provide a preview.

The Florida congressman—already one of McCarthy’s biggest critics—called him and Minority Whip Steve Scalise “weak men” following the release of audio from a Jan. 10 call among members of party leadership. In that tape, McCarthy and Scalise expressed concern over Gaetz’s militant rhetoric after Jan. 6, with Scalise suggesting it might be illegal.

“You no longer have to be a lobbyist with a $5,000 check to know what McCarthy and Scalise really think,” Gaetz said, in response. “You just have to listen to their own words as they disparage Trump and the Republicans in Congress who fight for him.”

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Beyond Gaetz, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ)—an influential former chair of the Freedom Caucus—told One America News the comments from McCarthy present a “huge trust issue” within the party.

Perhaps most gravely for McCarthy, Tucker Carlson—who has needled the GOP leader on various topics for months—laced into him on his Tuesday night show, calling him a Democratic Party “puppet” and a “man who in private, turns out, sounds like an MSNBC contributor.”

One senior House GOP aide pointed to Carlson’s comments as the biggest potential liability for McCarthy, saying that “a Tucker-waged campaign… would be bad for him.”

For now, veteran GOP political hands seemed confident in dismissing the possibility of any real revolt against McCarthy down the road.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a long-serving lawmaker and a reliable ally of leadership, predicted that “very few” Republicans would vote against McCarthy as speaker.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Cole told The Daily Beast.

Another source close to House conservatives felt like McCarthy would almost certainly be fine as long as he took care of his relationship with Trump.

“He’ll meet with the Freedom Caucus, make a few verbal commitments and 80 percent of them will commit within an hour,” this source predicted. “Feels like his only path to losing it is if he own-goals himself into pissing Trump off.”

This source also predicted that, as long as Republicans won a decent majority, Trump would be so happy to see a “red wave” that he wouldn’t start a fight. In fact, he may even be inclined to tamp down the resistance by calling House Republicans who were on the fence about McCarthy—in which case hardly any Republican would deny Trump’s request.

But that assumes Trump’s support, something that is far from a given at the moment. And if Republicans did only win a narrow majority, Trump may also look for someone to blame. As one of these sources put it, McCarthy’s math problem would only be exacerbated in that situation because he’s been “priming” Republicans with expectations of a shellacking.

Kevin McCarthy: Trump Knew He Was Responsible for Jan. 6

For now, however, House Republicans are avoiding firm declarations and trying to move on from the controversy as quickly as possible.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), one of the lawmakers mentioned in the tapes by McCarthy and Scalise because of his speech at the Jan. 6 rally near the White House, insisted to The Daily Beast that the story was essentially old news.

“Nothing that has been revealed over the last few months, from these tape recordings of Kevin McCarthy, changes his reputation amongst Republican members,” Brooks said.

As Brooks knows well—he was recently un-endorsed by the ex-president in his Alabama Senate race—Trump is the one figure with the power to change any Republican’s reputation overnight.

Doug Heye, a former top aide to Eric Cantor—the former GOP majority leader who served closely alongside McCarthy—said McCarthy’s comments “only play a role for those who have made up their mind, who want to make trouble and headlines anyways.”

Heye said he doubted that Trump would actually knife the GOP leader. But he noted that nearly every Republican plays by the same rules when it comes to the former president who holds so much sway over the party.

“If we’ve learned anything about Donald Trump, it’s that members hustle to score points with him,” Heye said. “But he doesn’t give points, he only takes them away. One at a time.”

with reporting from Matt Fuller

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