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Analysis: Leadership Race Not Over Despite Scalise Declining to Challenge McCarthy

McCarthy still needs to shore up support from conservatives, GOP candidates

From left, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., are presenting a united front for now about the future leadership lineup. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., are presenting a united front for now about the future leadership lineup. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republican leaders made moves Thursday to give the appearance that there won’t be any infighting about who should replace retiring Speaker Paul D. Ryan as head of the conference. Don’t be fooled.

The race to replace Ryan is not over — unless Republicans lose the majority in November. In that scenario, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would have the insider track to being elected minority leader since it would only require a simple majority vote of the GOP conference.

But if Republicans hold onto the majority, there will be a speaker’s election on the floor that requires a majority of House member votes. And McCarthy has yet to win over conservatives who have opposed his ascension in the past. Not to mention there will be several freshmen members who will also get a vote.

Ryan on Thursday sought to end any talk of a battle between McCarthy, his No. 2, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, his No. 3.

“I was encouraged that Steve Scalise this morning said that he thinks, you know, after the election that Kevin, that Kevin McCarthy ought to be the person to replace me after the elections,” Ryan told reporters during his weekly news conference.

The Wisconsin Republican did not elaborate about the context of Scalise’s remark. Ryan’s office did not return a request for comment.

Scalise did say publicly Thursday in an interview with Fox News that he would not challenge McCarthy.

“I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” the Louisiana Republican said. “He and I are good friends.”

That comment is not the same thing as Ryan alleged Scalise said.

Scalise spokeswoman Lauren Fine said the whip did meet with Ryan Thursday morning but no endorsements were made.

“Nothing was discussed that Scalise hasn’t already said publicly for weeks,” she said.

Scalise told Politico over the last recess — before Ryan had announced his plan to retire — that he was not challenging McCarthy for anything. Many had interpreted his comment as a way to leave the door open for a speaker run should McCarthy fail to garner the needed support.


Ryan’s characterization of Scalise’s comment could be interpreted as an attempt to strong-arm him into backing McCarthy. It assures Scalise will be asked that question directly, and it is unlikely the whip would say he is not supporting McCarthy.

The speaker has already provided his view, calling Scalise’s alleged support of McCarthy “encouraging because what it shows you is that we have an intact leadership team that supports each other and that’s all heading in the right direction.”

Any comment from Scalise to the contrary would suggest the leadership team is not intact and could throw the Republican Conference into chaos.

But Scalise doesn’t need to be the one to dismiss McCarthy. There are plenty of other members within the conference who could do so. If enough of them speak out against the majority leader’s promotion, then it will be difficult for him to move up.

A handful of Republicans have already made clear they won’t back McCarthy, including Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Paul Gosar of Arizona. Massie and Gosar indicated they wouldn’t support Scalise either.

A key group to watch is the House Freedom Caucus. They were among the conservatives who blocked McCarthy from becoming speaker in 2015, when he sought to replace John A. Boehner. McCarthy dropped out of the speaker race once it became clear he couldn’t get a majority on the floor, resulting in the push for Ryan as the consensus speaker.

Ryan suggested he doesn’t see history repeating itself.

“I don’t think we have that kind of a vacuum now,” he said. “We have a very talented leadership team that is extremely experienced now. And that leadership team is in sync with one another and supportive of each other. And so I do not see that kind of a disruptive process like we had when I came into this office.”

Freshmen question

Even if the Freedom Caucus decides to support McCarthy — which will almost certainly require concessions from the California Republican — the freshmen class could still be wildcard votes. 

Typically freshmen would not come in and make a power play, but this isn’t a typical leadership election.

Since it’s known Ryan is leaving, Republican candidates will be faced with questions about whom they believe should replace him, just as Democratic candidates have been asked whether they would support Nancy Pelosi as speaker.

If Democrats decide to run attack ads villainizing McCarthy, GOP candidates may decided not to support him.

All of the uncertainty is why some Republicans are pushing for Ryan to give up his gavel and hold leadership elections now instead of after the November elections as normal. But so far it’s a small group and Ryan is resisting.

“I’ve talked to a lot of members, a lot of members, who think it’s in all of our best interests for this leadership team to stay in place and run through the tape,” he said. 

Ryan also rejected the notion that he won’t be able to continue serving as House Republicans’ chief fundraiser as a lame duck speaker. He noted that when he took over as speaker he set a goal to raise $20 million and then doubled that amount.

“Not only did I hit that goal, I hit it eight months early,” he said. “So there is nobody that has come close to being able to raise the kind of funds I have and still can raise for this majority.”

“So it’s obviously in our interest to keeping our majority that every player is on the field fighting for this majority, raising for this majority,“Ryan said. “And it makes no sense to take the biggest fundraiser off the field. And I think almost all of our members see it that way as well.”

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