House Republicans on Wednesday elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy as their minority leader over Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a decision that improves the likelihood that one day the California Republican might be speaker.
McCarthy has vowed to lead Republicans back into the majority over the next two years. If he succeeds, the chances of him being elected speaker would be significantly higher than had Republicans held the majority this year.
That’s the upshot of the GOP’s loss in the midterms last week. McCarthy’s ability to secure 218 floor votes to be elected speaker was in question, but he was always expected to easily win a majority of the Republican Conference’s support. Since the latter is all it takes to be elected minority leader, McCarthy’s victory Wednesday was never really in question.
But his ascension to the top Republican spot is still significant because he has tried and failed to rise before. This time, McCarthy’s colleagues pushed him to the top in a 159-43 vote.
In 2015, after Speaker John A. Boehner announced his plan to resign, McCarthy stepped up to replace him. He ran up until the conference vote when he announced — to the shock of most members — that he was dropping his bid.
McCarthy did not have the votes to be elected speaker on the floor in 2015, which led to Paul D. Ryan’s rise to speaker. Conservatives who opposed McCarthy then suggested they still had enough of a coalition to block him again in a speaker’s race this year, but they won’t have a chance to test that, thanks to the midterm results.
Now that McCarthy is in the No. 1 Republican leadership spot, the probability that he could be speaker one day has significantly improved.
It’s typical for party caucus leaders to remain in power even when they flip from minority to majority, and even vice versa.
To understand how difficult it is to oust leaders once they’re on top, look no further than the Democratic Caucus’ current internal debate over Nancy Pelosi’s speakership bid.
The California Democrat helped her party win the majority and has the support of the vast majority of the Democratic Caucus. While Pelosi has not yet clinched the votes needed to be elected speaker on the floor, her opposition has no one to challenge her yet, and her supporters are confident she’ll ultimately win over enough skeptics to secure the gavel.
Pelosi’s biggest obstacles are that she’s already led the caucus for 16 years, effectively blocking an entire generation of members from ascending under her leadership, and that this election victory comes after four straight election cycles in which Democrats failed to win the majority.
McCarthy, who is new to the top spot and has only been in elected leadership for eight years, does not face those same obstacles.
The quicker he can help Republicans win back the majority, the better his prospects of becoming speaker will be. If it happens in a single cycle, it’s hard to see the Republican Conference denying him the gavel.
Still, McCarthy will likely have to find a way to make peace with Jordan and his allies in the Freedom Caucus.
One way he could make progress toward that end is to support — or at a minimum not block — Jordan or another Freedom Caucus member running for the top Republican spot on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The ranking member post is open because South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, the current top Republican on the panel, is retiring. The only member who had planned to run to replace him, Oklahoma Rep. Steve Russell, lost his re-election bid last week.
Jordan is the most senior Republican on Oversight who will be in Congress next year. Four of the next six most senior Republicans — Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee and Mark Meadows of North Carolina — are all Freedom Caucus members.
Another one of those six, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, is generally aligned with the Freedom Caucus, and the other, North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, is already the top Republican on the Education and the Workforce Committee.
So if McCarthy and the Republican Steering Committee — on which he’ll hold oversize influence with four votes — wanted to punish Freedom Caucus members for voting against him for minority leader by not allowing them minority control of the Oversight panel, they’d have to reach to members who will rank tenth or below in seniority.
Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.