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Why the Speaker Race Won’t Fade Away Until November

Potential candidates lack a path to 218 votes and need time to build coalitions

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the front-runner to succeed retiring Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., but there is a long way to go until the November elections. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the front-runner to succeed retiring Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., but there is a long way to go until the November elections. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans don’t know if they will be holding a speaker’s race or a contest for minority leader come November, but that isn’t stopping them from preparing for the former. 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the leading candidate to replace retiring Speaker Paul D. Ryan, needs more time to build sufficient support to win a still-hypothetical speaker’s race. The same goes for other members eyeing the position.

A speaker needs support from a majority of all House members to be elected on the floor, unlike other leadership positions that only require the backing of a majority of the party caucuses. Intraparty leadership elections are typically held in late November of election years with a floor vote for speaker occurring in January on the first day of a new Congress.

Some House Republicans want to hold a speaker election now, but Ryan insists he will hold on to the gavel through the end of his term. 

McCarthy is working on corralling the support needed to win a floor vote for speaker, members who have spoken to him said, but other members are also testing the waters for potential runs.

Watch: Members Mull a Months-Long Speaker Race

“There are half a dozen people quietly — or some not so quietly — taking the pulse of how much support they have,” Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton said. “That’s just the nature of this institution. As soon as there’s an opening, somebody is going to be looking at it.”

McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise “are the obvious first choices,” Barton added. “But there are lots of other people who would be good speakers, and some of them are looking it.”

Barton is retiring and won’t get to vote on Ryan’s replacement unless the speaker relinquishes his gavel early. He declined to say who else was trying to build support for a potential bid but noted that he believes some of his fellow Texas Republicans who hold committee chairmanships would make good speakers. 

When asked specifically about two names who have been floated by others — Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady and Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway — Barton said both would be good candidates. 

Brady on Monday dismissed talk of him running for a leadership post, saying he has the “greatest job in America” as head of the tax-writing panel.

“I know I contribute best from where I’m at, right here as chair,” he said. 

Ryan had made similar comments during his short-lived tenure as Ways and Means chairman before he was reluctantly drafted to run for speaker in 2015 after McCarthy dropped his bid amid conservative opposition.

Questionable support

McCarthy’s previous aborted run for speaker is why many are questioning whether he could get enough support this time. 

Ryan has endorsed the California Republican and said he sees a different environment for his candidacy now.

“What’s changed is this leadership team has come together and gelled, this conference has been unified, and we’ve actually moved the ball and gotten things done. … So I really do envision a more seamless transition, versus say the time when I came in,” the told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. 

But just because Ryan envisions a more seamless transition does not make it so. 

The House Freedom Caucus, a key bloc that opposed McCarthy’s 2015 bid, is not backing him — or any other candidate as yet. But one of the leaders of the hard-line conservative group, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, is considering a run. 

While many believe Jordan is simply trying to block McCarthy’s ascension or, at a minimum, showcase the group’s leverage, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said Jordan would only run to win. 

“He is thinking about running a serious campaign to win and be speaker,” the North Carolina Republican said. 

Jordan suggested he won’t be making a decision on running until, and if, a speaker’s race is called. But if he were to get in a race, he said his goal would be to win. Outside conservative groups such as FreedomWorks have spoken out against McCarthy and suggested support for Jordan.

Meadows said there is no candidate at this point who has the 218 votes needed to be speaker. The Freedom Caucus spent some of their Monday night meeting discussing the eventual leadership race, he added.

“Although there are certainly some conversations about leadership personalities, most of those were not personality-driven,” he said. “It was more about process — what we want to see, how we want to see things differently.”


Meadows confirmed his group would eventually outline some requirements a potential speaker would need to meet to get its support, but said members haven’t yet settled on those asks.

“Anybody is as capable as their constituency demands, and sometimes we don’t demand the level of commitment that we sometimes expect going into a race,” he said. “And we need to demand that.”

Some Freedom Caucus members have already started laying out their own requirements. For example, Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs said he needs to see three things from any candidate before pledging his support: that they understand the “exponential threat” of the budget deficit; are willing to return to regular order; and are honest.

“It’s an easier sell for Jim Jordan for me [than] any number of other people,” Biggs said. “Kevin would have a hard time selling it.”

Biggs said there are conservatives outside the Freedom Caucus who could also meet his requirements but he declined to identify them. But for any of the hopefuls, he suggested they start building support now. 

“I think that some of my conservative friends are missing the boat if they think that they can wait,” the Arizona Republican said. “You can’t wait here because Speaker Ryan has already put the gas on the fire by endorsing Kevin McCarthy. So it’s time to act.”

Watch: Three Questions About Ryan’s Future

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Power to block

With three-dozen official members and others who align with their views, the Freedom Caucus can prevent any speaker candidate from getting the 218 votes needed to win election on the House floor, since Democrats will vote for their own preferred candidates, unlikely to be Republicans.

A few GOP members, speaking on background to discuss the sensitive conference dynamics, suggested that just like 2015, the Freedom Caucus would struggle to get concessions from McCarthy. But if he or any other candidate strikes a deal with the conservatives who have reputations as rabble-rousers, it could repel others in the conference who are unhappy about leadership catering to the Freedom Caucus.

The dynamic of a fractured Republican Conference is what makes it difficult for any member to build a coalition of support needed to win a speaker’s race.

The coalition-building only becomes more difficult if the GOP’s majority narrows after the midterms, especially if it gets down to only a few seats to spare. A couple of members have already said they wouldn’t support McCarthy or any current member of leadership for speaker. 

And, of course, the whole debate could become moot if Democrats win the majority since they would then be electing a speaker. Some GOP members are frustrated that candidates are trying to whip up support now when the party’s focus should be on holding its power, not compromising it.

“If we’re not going to have control of the House of Representatives, then why even bother with this internal fight that could result in schisms and hurt feelings and making it more difficult for us to prevail in November?” Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks said, reflecting sentiments raised by several members.

Ryan has tried to quell the jockeying by rallying his leadership team around McCarthy as his replacement. He even said Scalise would be supporting McCarthy, although the majority whip had initially only declined to run against the California Republican, not endorse him. Ryan apparently backed Scalise into a corner, however, and he is now pledging to support McCarthy should he run.

“Whip Scalise’s focus remains on moving our conservative agenda forward and maintaining our Republican majority,” spokesman Chris Bond said. “When a speaker’s race is called, he’ll be supporting Leader McCarthy.”

That statement still provides some room for Scalise to mount a run should McCarthy, who has not formally announced his candidacy, opt out. 

Scalise is not expected to be at the Capitol this week. The Louisiana Republican on Monday “initiated a series of planned, inpatient procedures related to his ongoing recovery from injuries sustained in last summer’s shooting attack,” according to MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “It is anticipated that he will remain in the hospital for several days.”

Early election?

With the jockeying to replace Ryan not dying down, some members have called for the speaker to give up his gavel and call an early speaker’s election. Ryan is resisting those calls, saying that a majority of the conference supports his plan to remain speaker through the end of the term. 

On Thursday, he spoke defensively against such talk by noting the fundraising records he’s broken since becoming speaker and saying it makes no sense to take the party’s chief fundraiser out of the game. 

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said the calls for Ryan to step down early have dissipated over the last few days. 

“Once Paul expressed that he felt like he could do the job, it kind of threw a little wet blanket on the little four or five spots that I heard uprising,” the North Carolina Republican said. 

Some members, like Barton, still think it’s inevitable Ryan will change his plans, especially if his fundraising drops and pressure for him to step aside grows. 

“Once people know you’re not going to be around, they’re ready to go to the next person,” he said. “And I think he’ll maintain his commitment to his constituents by staying in Congress, but I think he’ll step aside and let there be a new election.”

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