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Kevin McCarthy’s Defeat Could Cost Republicans the House

Few Americans are shedding tears for Kevin McCarthy. The former House speaker engendered little public sympathy as he tried, and ultimately failed, to wrangle a narrow and fractured Republican majority into a functioning governing body. His ouster on Tuesday has, in the short term, paralyzed Congress and increased the likelihood of a prolonged government shutdown in the coming weeks.

Republicans are only now beginning to contemplate the significant political ramifications of tossing McCarthy. Retaining their narrow majority in the House next year was already going to be a challenge. But the GOP will now have to defend its four-seat advantage without a leader who, for all of McCarthy’s political shortcomings, was widely recognized as its best fundraiser, candidate recruiter, and campaign strategist. “They just took out our best player,” a rueful Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told me on Thursday, referring to the eight renegade Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy.

Cole, the chair of the Rules Committee and a 22-year veteran of the House, was a McCarthy loyalist to the end. He could become his successor if neither of the declared GOP candidates, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Representative Jim Jordan, the Judiciary Committee chair, are able to secure the votes needed to become speaker. Cole has declined offers to run for the job himself—he told me the chances that the gavel lands in his hands are “very low, and if I have anything to say about it, zero”—but as someone with good relationships across the party, he’s seen as a solid backup.

For now, Cole is, like other McCarthy allies, still seething at the unprecedented vote to overthrow the speaker and is backing efforts to change the House rules so that whoever replaces McCarthy does not face the same ever-present threat. “We put sharp knives in the hands of children, and they used them,” Cole said.

In an hour-long phone interview, he told me that the hard-liners’ revolt against McCarthy could “very easily” cost the GOP its majority next year. “I think these guys materially hurt our chances to hold the majority,” Cole said. “That’s just the reality.”

McCarthy is neither a policy wonk nor a brilliant legislator. But his strengths  were underappreciated, Cole said. Committees he controlled raised more than half a billion dollars for the House Republican majority in recent years. McCarthy has also played a leading role in persuading promising Republicans to run for pivotal House seats. “This guy was by far the best political speaker that I’ve seen,” he told me. (Democrats and more than a few Republicans would dispute that assertion, pointing to the fact that Republicans won a much slimmer majority under McCarthy’s leadership in 2022 than they were expected to.)

“This is going to cost us candidates,” Cole said, and “God knows how much money.” The spectacle of an internal leadership war bringing the House to a halt also undercuts the GOP’s credibility as a governing party, he lamented. “They just messed up the House. They had no exit plan, no alternative strategy, no alternative candidate.”

Both Jordan and Scalise are more conservative than McCarthy, as is a third potential candidate, Representative Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, who heads the Republican Study Committee, the GOP’s largest bloc of conservative members. None of them, however, can match McCarthy’s fundraising prowess. Cole told me he’s “leaning pretty strongly” toward Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican. Donald Trump has endorsed Jordan, but Scalise is nevertheless considered the favorite to win the party’s nomination for speaker in a secret ballot based on his years in the leadership and because he’s more palatable to Republicans in swing districts. The internal vote, expected next week, will test how much sway the former president has in a leadership battle that typically plays out more in private than in public. (GOP lawmakers reportedly recoiled at plans for Fox News to host a televised debate between the candidates, who normally make their pitches behind closed doors.)

Scalise is well-liked within his party, but he’s undergoing treatment for blood cancer, which Cole acknowledged was a concern for some Republicans. “People are worried,” he said. “They’re worried that we’re going to put him in a job where he hurts himself.” In 2017, Scalise underwent several months of rehab after being shot by a would-be assassin targeting Republican lawmakers at a baseball practice.

Jordan is by far the more bombastic of the two. A former college-wrestling champion, he helped found the House Freedom Caucus and made his name as a conservative foe of former Speaker (and fellow Ohioan) John Boehner. Jordan’s antagonism toward the leadership alienated many rank-and-file Republicans then, but he struck something of a truce with McCarthy, his onetime rival. McCarthy didn’t stand in the way of Jordan’s promotion to become the top Republican on first the House Oversight Committee and then on the Judiciary Committee, a perch from which he’s launched aggressive investigations into President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Jordan returned the favor by backing McCarthy’s bid to become speaker, sticking by him during all 15 rounds of voting in January and during this week’s revolt.

Scalise would likely have an easier time than Jordan winning the 218 Republican votes needed to secure the speakership in the public House floor vote. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, who led the effort to topple McCarthy, has said he would support either candidate. Jordan’s close ties to Trump and his disdain for bipartisan compromise could make him a problem for politically vulnerable Republicans, particularly those from New York and California who represent districts that Biden carried in 2020. His nomination would also likely revive questions about his handling of allegations of sexual misconduct against a wrestling-team physician at the Ohio State University when Jordan served as a coach. Jordan has denied wrongdoing, but former student athletes have said he knew about the physician’s abuse and failed to report it.

The scandal could haunt Republicans come election time if Jordan is the speaker, but the issue animating the leadership race is whether to, as Cole put it, “take away the knives” and restrict the procedural tool, known as the “motion to vacate,” that Gaetz used to remove McCarthy. “We’ve driven out three speakers now with this weapon,” Cole said. Boehner resigned in 2015 after it became clear that he might lose the speakership in a floor vote, and his successor, Paul Ryan, was under increasing pressure from his right flank when he chose to retire three years later.

The Main Street Caucus, a coalition of more pragmatic and ideologically flexible Republicans, is pushing to change the rules, and a few members have said they’ll only support a candidate who promises to do so. Currently, any single lawmaker can force a vote on a motion to vacate. To raise that threshold, Republicans might need votes from Democrats, who refused to help rescue McCarthy. “I think it would get a lot of Democratic support,” Cole said. “We’d have to endure another hour of ‘I told you so.’ That’s fair enough.” Though he was critical of Democrats for voting to remove McCarthy, he said he understood why they did. “If we had the opportunity to take out [Nancy] Pelosi,” Cole said, “we probably would have done the same thing.”

He recounted a conversation with a long-serving House Democrat, Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, who alluded to worries that dissident Democrats could use the same tactic to oust a future speaker in their party. “We have our nuts too,” Cole recalled him whispering in an elevator. (Pascrell did not respond to a request for comment.)

The outcome of the rules debate could determine when Republicans are able to elect a speaker, reopen the House, and repair the harm they’ve done to their chances in next year’s elections. For his part, Cole is hoping that whoever they choose can quickly win a majority in a floor vote next week. And if they don’t? “Then,” he said, “it’s really a chaotic situation.”

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