California’s Kevin McCarthy expected to seek speaker position if Republicans keep the House

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

With news that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) won’t seek another term in 2018, Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy gets another chance — maybe his last — at the leadership post he has long coveted.

McCarthy and his chief rival for the speakership, Republican House Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), have each quietly shored up support behind the scenes for months in case Ryan stepped down.

Now their expected scramble to succeed Ryan as speaker — if Republicans hold their House majority after the midterm elections — is certain to influence the chamber’s business in the coming months, as well as reignite long-standing internal fights over who should lead the GOP caucus.


After Ryan’s announcement, neither man formally threw his hat in the ring.

In a statement, McCarthy didn’t mention his future plans, saying, “There is more work to do this year, and we will do it together as a team.”

Scalise told reporters that “I don’t think now is the time to talk about what titles people want.”

Republicans on Wednesday sought to downplay fears that Ryan’s departure will hurt their party’s chances of holding the House in 2018, especially amid rising Democratic enthusiasm.

But GOP veterans acknowledged that the race has already begun over who will replace him.

Ryan’s retirement will “liberate McCarthy and Scalise to go out and campaign like crazy” to keep the majority, and “that’ll be a significant factor in which of them gets picked” to replace him, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Wednesday.

Ryan hinted that he plans to endorse a successor, but said he plans to remain in his post until January.

“I think this is probably not the right time to get into that,” Ryan said of the race. “I’ll share those thoughts later. That election is in November, so it’s not something we have to sweat right now.”

Some on Capitol Hill are saying that making the announcement now frees Ryan to act on contentious issues, but it also makes him a lame duck and chances were already low for substantive legislation for the remainder of the election year. And waiting until November to hold the speakers election could cause problems of its own.

A seven-month shadow speakers fight, and the accompanying bickering among GOP factions, will likely distract Republicans as they campaign in the midterms, and every move McCarthy and Scalise make will be closely scrutinized. In the end, Democrats may very well hold the speaker’s gavel again.

If McCarthy and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) continue to hold top spots in their respective party leaderships next year, it could be the first time in history — no matter which party triumphs in November — that the House speaker and House minority leader would represent the same state.

Elected to replace his mentor Bill Thomas in Congress in 2006, McCarthy ascended the ranks quickly and has been majority leader since 2014.

When restive Republicans drove Ohio Rep. John Boehner to step down as House speaker in October 2015, it was widely assumed that the Californian known for his well-honed political skills and pleasant nature would step into the role.

But members of the highly conservative House Freedom Caucus threatened to withhold their support unless McCarthy, who is considered more a part of the Republican establishment, embraced their pick for a new majority leader and made other concessions.

Then McCarthy made a widely publicized gaffe on Fox News that seemed to confirm Democrats’ allegations that the hearings over the State Department’s handling of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, were chiefly intended to hurt Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for president.

“Everybody thought that Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she is untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”

He shocked colleagues by abruptly dropping out of the speaker’s race just hours before Republicans were expected to nominate him to succeed Boehner.

After much prompting, Ryan took the gavel instead.

But 2018 is a very different year for McCarthy. And it’s clear that he never lost interest in becoming speaker.

He’s one of the most prolific fundraisers for the national Republican Party and GOP candidates — raising $8.75 million so far this year — and he’s worked over the past three years to build relationships with some of the same conservatives who kept him from getting the speakership in 2015, by raising cash and making campaign appearances.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina told reporters Wednesday that although he has a preference in the speaker’s race, he will “absolutely not” share who that is yet.

Much will depend on the outcome of the midterms. Momentum appears to be on Democrats’ side headed into the 2018 election, and the GOP districts they are targeting include those represented by more moderate members who would prefer McCarthy over Scalise, Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney said.

“I’m sure he’s already in the process of making calls and getting commitments, he’s very good at that,” Pitney said. “The question is: How many of those folks will be around after the election?”

Pitney said the Benghazi gaffe won’t be a factor. “The incident that led to his withdrawal last time is down the memory hole,” Pitney said.

Although President Trump, then a candidate, praised McCarthy’s 2015 decision not to run for speaker, the lawmaker has developed a particularly close relationship with the president, who calls the congressman “My Kevin” and who could want to back a new leader he likes and respects. Earlier this year, McCarthy was tasked with explaining to Trump why the midterms could be bad for Republicans. The two men also speak and meet frequently.

But Trump has also embraced Scalise, who is still recovering after being shot at a baseball practice in June.

Trump’s input will play an “extremely powerful” role as House Republicans weigh the next speaker, Meadows said.

“I think the president will certainly weigh in on who the next speaker should be and I think that that input will be significant,” he said.

Staff writer Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.

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12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional analysis and reaction.

10:05 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from Ryan and Pitney.

8:10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from McCarthy, Meadows and Gingrich.

This article was originally published at 7:10 a.m.