Speaker Paul D. Ryan's endorsement Friday of Rep. Kevin McCarthy as his successor vastly increases chances that the Bakersfield congressman will lead House Republicans come November, but it may not seal the deal.
"We all think that Kevin is the right person" to become speaker, Ryan (R-Wis.) told NBC's "Meet the Press" anchor Chuck Todd in a segment that airs Sunday but was made public Friday. "I think Kevin's the right guy to step up."
Ryan's abrupt retirement announcement Wednesday threw the fractious House Republican conference into uncertainty, especially with news that he intends to hold on to the gavel until after the November election. Initially Ryan said he wouldn't talk about endorsing someone until then.
Anointing a successor now could be an attempt to tamp down calls from some House Republicans who say Ryan should give up the speakership in the coming weeks and let his replacement take the reins early, rather than muddle through a distracting seven-month race to replace him.
Many Republicans see maintaining control of the House as their biggest concern, a goal that could be more difficult amid an intraparty fight. Some also questioned whether Ryan would be able to sustain his massive fundraising efforts as a lame duck speaker.
Ryan forcefully rejected such concerns as coming from a "small group" and not the vast majority of the Republican caucus.
As House majority leader, McCarthy is the second-ranking Republican official in the House, making him a logical replacement for Ryan.
Still, Ryan's endorsement doesn't mean that the race to replace him is close to over. McCarthy and his chief rival for the speakership, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), have been quietly shoring up support for months.
Although Ryan asserted on "Meet the Press" that Scalise agrees McCarthy is the best choice to be the next speaker, Scalise hasn't pulled his name from consideration. He told reporters earlier this week that it's too soon to endorse McCarthy. His office declined to comment Friday on Ryan's endorsement.
Scalise, a six-term Republican, has shown no compunction about leapfrogging over senior members in the past as he quickly rose to a leadership role in the House. On Thursday, he noted that he had raised $3 million to help colleagues with reelection so far this year, a record for the House whip.
But he also has indicated he would not challenge McCarthy. "I've never run against Kevin and wouldn't run against Kevin," Scalise said Thursday on Fox News.
Prominent House conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said Friday that he also is considering a speakers bid. Jordan co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, and his entry into the race would further scramble the coalitions that McCarthy and Scalise have been building.
McCarthy's spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.
McCarthy rose quickly through the ranks after winning his first election in 2006 and became majority leader in 2014.
He initially sought the speakership in 2015 when then-Speaker John A. Boehner resigned. Rumblings from the conservative Freedom Caucus that he wasn't conservative enough led McCarthy to withdraw his bid hours before his Republican colleagues were set to cast a vote. That prompted Ryan to reluctantly take the job.
In the three years since, McCarthy has worked to shore up support for a job he has long coveted, doing favors and campaign fundraisers for colleagues across the country, including for some of the same conservatives who kept him from becoming speaker in 2015. McCarthy is one of the most prolific fundraisers for the national Republican Party and GOP candidates — raising $8.75 million so far this year.
He often returns to California to raise money and build relationships with various power centers, but his home base at the southern end of the Central Valley is far from the heavyweight political centers of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
If he becomes speaker, one of the most powerful Republicans in the country would hail from a state where Republicans hold little to no political power.
President Trump's thumb on the scale could play a big role in determining who will lead the House Republican conference after November. Many House Republicans will turn to the head of their party for an indication of what he will do, and Trump could end the speculation now if he endorsed a candidate, but it's unclear that will happen anytime soon.
McCarthy has worked to cultivate a positive relationship with Trump, who initially crowed when McCarthy dropped out of the speaker's race in 2015. But since Trump's election, the president has taken to publicly referring to McCarthy as "my Kevin" and contacts him frequently.
Trump also speaks highly of Scalise, particularly since last summer's shooting during a congressional baseball practice in which Scalise was gravely wounded. It remains unclear whom the president would choose to support.
Trump and McCarthy have "a great relationship," but the president is not making an endorsement right now, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday.
The scrambled shadow speaker's race could be moot if Democratic momentum holds and Republicans lose control of the House in November.
That result would probably put the gavel back in the hands of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and leave McCarthy and other GOP candidates fighting over the less attractive minority leader's position.
If McCarthy and Pelosi do end up holding the top House leadership spots for their respective parties next year, it would be the first time in history that the House speaker and House minority leader represented the same state.
Times staff writer Cathleen Decker in Washington contributed to this report.
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3:10 p.m.: This article was updated with more background.
1:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Ryan and analysis.