Republicans losing the House means Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) has an easier path to becoming his party’s leader in the lower chamber, even if it’s not the speakership he has long coveted.
“The difference between being speaker and minority leader is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney said, paraphrasing Mark Twain. “The speaker can do things. The minority leader can only complain.”
So why would anyone want to be minority leader?
“You have the potential of becoming speaker if the political tides were to shift in two to four years,” Pitney said.
And that’s what McCarthy highlighted in a letter to colleagues announcing his interest in leading Republicans in the minority next year. McCarthy noted that he helped engineer Republicans’ return to control in 2010.
“I helped build a majority from a deeper hole than this, and I have what it takes to do it again,” McCarthy said.
Reeling from losing more than 30 seats on election night, Republicans are expected to hold their leadership elections Wednesday. McCarthy is the presumptive favorite to become minority leader.
McCarthy spent the months since House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) announced his retirement quietly shoring up his support for a bid for speaker among the Republican conference and acting as a top campaign surrogate by raising money and support for colleagues across the country.
Ryan quickly tapped him as his preferred replacement, and while President Trump hasn’t made an outright endorsement, he and the man he calls “my Kevin” are in frequent contact.
But some had questioned if McCarthy had done enough to court the most conservative members of the conference. They blocked his 2015 bid for speaker because they viewed him as insufficiently conservative and too aligned to the GOP “establishment.” The speculation increased earlier this year when House Freedom Caucus founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said he would challenge McCarthy for the top spot.
Jordan confirmed this week he’ll still challenge McCarthy for minority leader, saying Republicans lost the House because they didn’t do enough to implement the campaign promises Trump ran on in 2016.
But the calculus is different for a minority leader race compared with a speaker’s race, which should make it easier for McCarthy to lock it down.
A candidate for speaker needs at least 50% of all votes — 218 when all House seats are occupied — and Democrats and Republicans get to participate. Jordan’s entry into the speaker’s race was a problem because he could pull away enough votes from conservative Republicans to prevent McCarthy from getting the majority he needed, especially since Democrats would almost certainly vote for their candidate.
A candidate for minority leader just needs support from a majority of his own party, and Jordan’s coalition isn’t thought to be big enough to deny McCarthy that.
And Jordan’s bid could be thrown into turmoil if rank and file Republicans blame the right wing of their party for forcing a vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Democrats lambasted Republicans with that hugely unpopular vote all through the campaign.
The No. 3 Republican in the House, Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who was considered a possible challenger to McCarthy for the speakership, said in a letter to colleagues that he would run for minority whip.
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers indicated Thursday that she will not seek another term, leaving the door open for the only other person who has entered the race, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.).
Though it’s not as influential a position as the speaker, being minority leader is a bit more powerful than just complaining about what legislation the majority puts forward. The leader is the public face of their party in the House, offering the most prominent opposition to what the other side does, or doesn’t, do.
And, if they are savvy like current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), they know when to hold their caucus together and wring concessions out of the majority party in exchange for help passing legislation. Pelosi repeatedly stepped in during her years as minority leader to help Republican leaders who couldn’t get enough votes from their own party— in exchange for adding something Democrats wanted or killing legislation they opposed.