Why a festering GOP schism means Kevin McCarthy may miss his next chance to become the speaker of the House
- Disaffected colleagues could sideline the front-runner for speaker should the GOP retake the House.
- Trump adviser Steve Bannon is the latest to join in the Kevin McCarthy bashing.
- "There's too much curtain measuring happening 10 months out," a GOP operative told Insider.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy played it safe on Thursday and stayed far from the public spotlight as the country marked the first anniversary since a pro-Trump mob violently stormed the US Capitol.
His notable absence helped him avoid tough questions about a day that Vice President Kamala Harris connected back to the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But it also may have further cost him politically with a group of GOP hardliners who are close to former President Donald Trump and who could ultimately help spoil McCarthy's bid to become the next House speaker should Republicans win back the majority in 2022.
Trumpworld fixture Steve Bannon this week joined the chorus of GOP detractors who seem to have no use for McCarthy, telling his podcast listeners that the current crop of House GOP leaders are "just sitting there as controlled opposition."
Though Bannon didn't specifically namecheck the eight-term California Republican, he did pine for "leadership that is prepared to make sure our country is not stolen."
Bannon isn't an elected official and he doesn't have a vote in the House. But his voice is a potent one among the MAGA faithful. He also joins a growing clique of incredibly strange bedfellows that includes Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Matt Gaetz of Florida who all are showing burgeoning contempt for McCarthy.
Greene and Gaetz have both been taunting McCarthy for months about the obstacles they can present to his potential promotion to be the next House speaker. On the January 6 anniversary, they continued to deliver MAGA applause lines while criticizing their own party leadership.
"I wish that there was more of our conference with us," Greene said during a webcast with Gaetz from inside the Capitol complex.
Complaints from McCarthy's right aren't the only ones he's dealing with. On Thursday, Rep. Liz Cheney brought her father to the Capitol to mark the January 6 riot, and the former vice president took the opportunity to take his own backhanded swipe at McCarthy.
"It's not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years," Dick Cheney, a former six-term Wyoming congressman who served as the GOP minority whip, told reporters.
McCarthy's balancing act
McCarthy's standing with Trump is anything but certain.
The two men sniped at each other as rioters swarmed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, with McCarthy stating on the floor a week later that the former president bore some responsibility for the unprecedented attack.
In between Trump rewarded ardent supporter Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Within weeks McCarthy raced down to Palm Beach, Florida, to bend the knee at Mar-a-Lago, a reunion Trump happily exploited as a photo-op.
—Ed O'Keefe (@edokeefe) January 28, 2021
To kick off 2022, McCarthy published an open letter to colleagues wherein he trashed the Biden administration and urged everyone to help him flip the chamber this fall. "If we are fortunate enough to earn the majority, it will take everyone rowing in the same direction from Day 1 to begin delivering on the priorities of the American people," he wrote.
A day later he was railing against social media companies for continuing to boot disinformation spreaders like Greene and Trump. McCarthy also has vowed to hold tech firms accountable once Republicans regain power.
—Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) January 4, 2022
But it's unclear if his attempts at appeasement are too little, too late for the grudge-holding provocateurs.
There is of course still lots of time to shore up support. Winning the House back in November would go a long way toward that goal, and Republicans have a pretty good shot at winning less than the dozen seats necessary during this fall's midterm elections.
From there, McCarthy would need to convince a majority of the House to back him. That's no guarantee given the current political environment that has splintered the GOP and where some Trump-aligned House members are suggesting they want someone else.
Last fall, Greene, who was stripped of all her committee assignments a month after being sworn in, suggested McCarthy hasn't clinched the speaker race, yet. "He doesn't have the full support to be Speaker," the freshman lawmaker turned armchair vote-counter said on Gaetz's podcast.
For his part, Gaetz has repeatedly floated nominating Trump for speaker if the midterms go Republicans' way. It's definitely a longshot. But members are free to vote for anyone of their choosing, from either party, including themselves when it comes time to vote for a new speaker at the start of the new session of Congress. Legally, they can even nominate someone not currently serving in Congress.
One former GOP leadership aide declined to lay odds on McCarthy's bid for a promotion, noting that some establishment Republicans may not be over his 2015 vanishing act when the speaker position also was open.
"It's going to really depend on how many Republicans remember that McCarthy once pulled himself out of the running at the last minute when he had a real chance to be speaker," the aide said of McCarthy's abrupt exit from the race to replace retiring House Speaker John Boehner.
McCarthy was politically radioactive back then six years ago amid rumors of extramarital affairs with then-Rep. Renee Elmers of North Carolina and anger that he had said the quiet part out loud by bragging that the GOP-led Benghazi investigation had torpedoed then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton's poll numbers. His departure from that internal election effectively cleared the path for Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to reluctantly succeed Boehner.
Doug Heye, a former House leadership aide turned GOP strategist, said McCarthy should be able to shrug off attacks from haters. Except one.
"The biggest wildcard isn't a few members who are critical of Kevin, but Trump," Heye wrote in an email, adding that the revenge-seeking former president's "threats of retribution hang like a sword of Damocles over any Republican he deems as insufficiently loyal."
Besides, Heye said, it's much too early to predict how the 2022 midterms and 2023 speaker's race will unfold. "There's too much curtain measuring happening 10 months out," he told Insider.