WASHINGTON – Republican leader Kevin McCarthy won the nomination Tuesday for House speaker, clearing a first step with majority support from his colleagues, but he now faces a weeks-long slog to quell right-flank objections before a final vote in the new year.
McCarthy has led House Republicans this far, and with the party now on the cusp of majority control, he has a chance to seize the gavel from Nancy Pelosi if Democrats are defeated.
The GOP leader pushed through the internal party election on a 188-31 vote, with ballots cast by new and returning lawmakers, but the challenges ahead are clear. McCarthy will need to grind out support from no fewer than 218 lawmakers from his slim ranks when the new Congress convenes in January, leaving just a few votes to spare.
“We've got our work cut out for us," McCarthy said, his voice strained after the vote.
The Californian noted that past speakers fell short in initial voting only to eventually claim the gavel, and he has highlighted backing from right-flank Republicans Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio as part of his “vast support.”
“Either we’re going to lead as a team or we’re going to lose as individuals,” he said.
But Republican leaders are facing an intense backlash on Capitol Hill over their disappointing performance in the midterm elections, when McCarthy's promises of a GOP sweep that would transform Washington collapsed. Instead, the House could have one of the slimmest majorities in 90 years, leaving McCarthy exposed to challengers and risking his ability to govern.
The fallout is spilling down-ballot into other Republican leadership races and into the Senate, where Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will face a challenge from GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the party's campaign chairman, in elections planned for Wednesday.
The former chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, challenged McCarthy but fell short. He still insisted that his speakership “should not be a foregone conclusion” and said five votes went to neither candidate, an indication of broader opposition to McCarthy.
Many in the Republican Party are blaming their losses on Donald Trump, who announced his 2024 bid for the White House from his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida on Tuesday evening. The former president endorsed hundreds of candidates, many of them far-right contenders rejected by voters.
It's not just McCarthy whose leadership was in question but others on his team. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., the campaign chairman who traditionally would be rewarded with a leadership spot, ended up slugging it out in a three-way race for the GOP's whip job, defeating Trump ally Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., after a second-round of voting.
The No. 2 Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, had an easier time, winning the majority leader spot uncontested, by voice vote. Also unopposed, Rep. Richard Hudson, of North Carolina, will lead the campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee.
And one of Trump's top allies in the House, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York — the party's conference chairwoman and the first lawmaker to back Trump in a 2024 run — fended off rival Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida in a race that was closer than expected.
A self-described “Trump-supporting, liberty-loving, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment Black man,” Donalds is seen by many as a potential new party leader.
Trump backs McCarthy for speaker, but the two have had a rocky relationship, and even Trump’s support is no guarantee McCarthy will reach the needed 218 votes when the new Congress convenes, particularly if Republicans win the House with just a slim, few-seat majority that would leave him no cushion for detractors.
One Trump ally, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, opposes McCarthy and predicted he will fall short, as happened in an earlier bid.
“To believe that Kevin is going to be speaker, you have to believe that he’s going to move votes in the next six weeks that he couldn’t move in the last six years,” Gaetz said.
But saying she's "proud" of McCarthy for listening to all lawmakers, Greene said "it’s so important for us to stay unified and get behind him as our speaker.”
It’s a familiar dynamic for House Republicans, one that befell their most recent Republican speakers — John Boehner and Paul Ryan — who both retired early rather than try to lead a party splintered by its far-right flank.
McCarthy survived those earlier battles between party factions, but he was forced to back out of a bid for the speaker’s job in 2015 when it was clear he did not have support from conservatives.
The weeks ahead promise to be a grueling period of hardball negotiations with the Freedom Caucus and rank-and-file Republicans as McCarthy tries to appease them and rack up the support he will need in the new year.
In a sign of how desperate Republicans are to bolster their ranks, some made overtures to conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas to switch parties and join the GOP.
“They just said, ’name your price,″” Cuellar told reporters. “I’m a Democrat.”
The conservative Freedom Caucus lawmakers, who typically align with Trump, are prepared to extract demanding concessions from McCarthy before giving him their backing. They have a long list of asks — from prime positions on House committees to guarantees they can have a role in shaping legislation.
“I’m willing to support anybody that’s willing to change dramatically how things are done here,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a Trump ally, said after meeting privately Monday with McCarthy.
But even rank-and-file lawmakers are assessing their choices for speaker, a position that is second in line to the president.
“I don’t just automatically assume heir apparent, necessarily,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. “We are voting for somebody who is going to be two heartbeats from the presidency."
Democrats will hold their party elections after Thanksgiving, as Pelosi and the top two leaders, Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, decide whether to stay on or step aside for a new generation eager to take over.
Pelosi could very well join the new Congress in January, declining to run for leadership, having won reelection for another two-year term representing San Francisco.
That's a route Clyburn, of South Carolina, indicated he would take if Democrats lose majority control.
“I’ve told everybody that I have no interest at this particular juncture of my life to run for speaker of the House or to run for minority leader of the House,” Clyburn told reporters. “I do wish to remain at the leadership table. As to what capacity that will be, I will leave that up to our Democratic caucus.”
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Brian Slodysko and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. And check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms.