Even if Kevin McCarthy wins his battle for House speaker, he could look weaker

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has launched a campaign for House speaker, posing a challenge to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has launched a campaign for House speaker, posing a challenge to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).

(Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)
Share via

The job of House speaker is still Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s to lose, but even if he overcomes a last-minute challenge from a conservative rival, the California Republican will take the gavel as a weakened leader.

With a nomination election set for Thursday, McCarthy appears to have rounded up the votes he needs to secure the preliminary round to take over once Speaker John A. Boehner steps down at the end of the month.

As the No. 2 Republican, McCarthy, now the majority leader, is next in line for the job and, until recently, faced only a nominal challenger.


But the surprise entry of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) brings a new dynamic to the leadership race and shows just how dissatisfied Republicans both in and out of Washington are with the status quo.

“I’d bet he ends up cobbling together enough votes to become the speaker, but how well he can manage is another story,” said John J. Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s a very difficult time to be speaker. It’s a time where success is defined as avoiding catastrophe.”

McCarthy’s allies remain confident he has the 218 votes needed to win the final House floor vote scheduled for Oct. 29, but Chaffetz, in launching his own bid, predicted McCarthy will fall short.

Chaffetz, like McCarthy, is of a younger generation of GOP lawmakers who prefer conflict to compromise. The Utah congressman lacks strong leadership experience, but he provides a viable alternative for those who are worried that promoting McCarthy would be seen in their home districts as promoting the same insiders at a time when constituents appear to prefer outsiders.

“If we just promote existing leadership, yikes, that’s going to get ugly for us at home,” Chaffetz said Monday in a briefing with reporters. “There will eventually be a realization we better darn well put up a fresh face.”

A key test will unfold Tuesday night when McCarthy appears before House conservatives at a closed-door candidates’ forum where many GOP lawmakers will be looking to extract promises about how he will deal with their priorities.


He’ll face tough questions over raising the nation’s debt limit, defunding Planned Parenthood and keeping the sequester caps to cut spending. Because GOP conservatives control a powerful block of about 50 votes, their support can make or break candidates.

Chaffetz already has suggested the direction he is heading, calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “flat-out wrong” for taking the threat of a government shutdown off the table in recent negotiations over Planned Parenthood funding.

That sort of hardened approach may win support from conservatives. But those promises will prove much tougher for the new speaker to deliver, as Boehner readily understands.

The House GOP’s attempts to push a conservative agenda was no match for the power of the Senate filibuster or President Obama’s veto pen. Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, advance the Keystone XL pipeline or prevent Obama’s immigration actions — all GOP priorities that languished under Democratic objections.

Boehner understood this dynamic, but got blamed by his troops for not fighting harder. McCarthy will face the same dilemma of trying to convince conservatives he will go to the mat, even as he is constrained by the limits of shared governance.

“They’re going to try to pin him down on commitments,” said one House Republican aide granted anonymity to discuss the race. “That may get him in, but that risks raising expectations and making promises that will be difficult to keep.”


McCarthy has remained largely out of the limelight since his high-profile TV stumble in which he appeared to suggest that the GOP-led House investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attack was partly aimed at weakening Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. Chaffetz capitalized on the remark in mounting his long-shot challenge.

“We need a speaker who speaks,” Chaffetz told reporters this week, promising his communication skills would be better than McCarthy’s.

McCarthy remained away from Washington at a GOP fundraiser Monday in Pittsburgh, and on Tuesday, he continued mop-up a week after his televised Benghazi gaffe, which he has since retracted.

“The mission of the Select Committee on Benghazi is to find the truth — period,” McCarthy said in a statement Tuesday.

How the race has come to this for McCarthy is another episode of discontent in the Republican Party that has played out in Congress and on the presidential primary trail.

McCarthy and Chaffetz in many ways should be natural allies. Separated by just two years in age and their arrival in Congress, they are relative newcomers to Washington, elected on promises to shake things up.


SIGN UP for the free Essential Politics newsletter >>

Both sleep in their offices at night, as they try to prove they haven’t succumbed to Washington’s comforts. Friends as they are, Chaffetz headlined McCarthy’s annual Bakersfield fundraiser in May.

Yet last Friday, at a fundraising event in New York City, the two men stood “eyeball to eyeball” as Chaffetz told his colleague he was launching a challenge for the job.

“He wasn’t happy,” Chaffetz recalled Monday, as he outlined his leadership goals in the committee room, where he wields the gavel as House Oversight chairman.

Chaffetz readily acknowledges he is late in the race and lacks the sophisticated whip-counting operation needed to pull off a victory. But he believes enough GOP colleagues agree with him that voters want change.

McCarthy’s affable personality and his prodigious party fundraising have earned him goodwill among colleagues. They have been supportive, if resigned, despite his sometimes inartful comments.


“Certainly he’s got the inside track,” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.). “I would be stunned if somebody beat him.”

But the rise of Republican voter unrest on the campaign trail and McCarthy’s gaffe last week has led some Republicans to question whether McCarthy will win over critics to secure the job.

“It’s still an open question and will be for a while,” said the House GOP aide.

The challenge is apparently strong enough that Boehner pushed back Thursday’s scheduled elections for offices lower down the leadership ladder. They will be held after the Oct. 29 floor vote for speaker.

That means McCarthy would not have to give up his current job in pursuit of a new one.

For the latest from Congress and 2016 campaign follow @LisaMascaro

For more, go to



Super PACs stretch the rules that prohibit coordination with presidential campaigns

Conservative GOP leader has unexpected Democratic fan: Michael Dukakis

The insider Pacific trade deal is a tough sell in an outsider year