The honest answer is no one knows. McCarthy was widely expected to emerge from Thursday's internal GOP gathering as the speaker in waiting — pending, of course, a trickier House floor vote later this month. With McCarthy's implosion, uncertainty reigns.

"It's complete chaos up on the Hill, and people are pissed!" one longtime House Republican aide e-mailed me in the wake of the McCarthy news.

Politics is a survivor's game, however, so the speculation of who might be next will pick up — and sort itself out — in the coming hours and days. Hoping for some clarity, I reached out to a group of current and former Republican members and staffers — as well as a handful of sources at influential conservative organizations — to see who was in the mix.

What rapidly became clear is that Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) is both (a) the only person in the House who could unite Republicans at this moment, and (b) not going to run for the job. Why not? "Ryan is genuinely interested in public policy," said a well-connected former top House GOP staffer. "That's what motivates him. The speakership is a management job — and a tough, complex and unrewarding one. You have to spend much of the day — every day — saying 'no' to your friends."   

Assuming Ryan is out of the mix (and I think that's a safe assumption as of today, given that his statement wasn't quite Sherman-esque), there's no obvious second or even third choice. But, the other thing my conversations about who's next turned up is that there is a very clear divide between those who believe an institutionalist — along the lines of Boehner ally Tom Cole — should be the pick and those who think the only chance the party has at moving forward in a productive manner is in putting a "real" conservative, along the lines of Trey Gowdy (S.C.), in the job.

Here are the names I heard more than a few times in my talks today — along with the strengths and weakness of each. (The candidates are listed alphabetically by last name.)

  • Jason Chaffetz: The Utahn will be in the mix because he was one of only two people willing to challenge McCarthy. But his inability to win over the tea party Republicans, coupled with a sense that he's in a little over his head, probably makes him a marginal player.
  • Tom Cole: The Oklahoman was a pollster and GOP strategist before being elected to replace J.C. Watts in 2002. He is widely regarded as an "adult" within the conference and someone who is well-liked by all factions. Cole's problem is that he is — as I mentioned above — a Boehner lieutenant and GOP establishment to his core.
  • Trey Gowdy: I made the case for Gowdy as majority leader earlier this week, despite his not being interested — and much of what I wrote about what would make him a good No. 2 might recommend him as a No. 1, too. Gowdy is trusted by the rock-ribbed conservatives and is a natural communicator on TV. But word is he's no more interested in being speaker than he was in being majority leader.
  • Jim Jordan: The Ohioan is a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative policy arm of the GOP conference, and now heads the House Freedom Caucus, the most tea party-aligned group in Congress. In that role, he has won fans among many outside conservative organizations in Washington. But not all of his colleagues see him in the same way. "He's disliked by over half of the conference," said one high-ranking congressional Republican.
  • Cathy McMorris-Rodgers: Having a woman as speaker appeals to lots of national GOP strategists concerned that the stereotype of the party as dominated by old white men is hurting their chances of winning the White House in 2016. But McMorris-Rodgers (Wash.), who is chairman of the Republican Conference, didn't impress in the immediate wake of Boehner's announcement when she considered a run for majority leader.
  • Patrick McHenry: As chief deputy whip, the North Carolinian runs the nuts and bolts of the vote-gathering operation for House Republicans. He's affable and has built relations across the conference as a result. The knock on the 39-year old is that he's just not ready. But everyone I talked to suggested he would be in the mix for the majority leader and majority whip jobs depending on how speaker vote comes down.
  • Peter Roskam: The Illinoisan might be the favorite son of the establishment wing of the congressional majority — which is a problem for him. Roskam has been out front in trying to push his side to use this moment as a time of reflection and discussion about where the party wants to go. He might continue to play that neutral arbiter role.
  • Steve Scalise: Scalise (La.) is the highest-ranking member of leadership left. But his name was one of the least-mentioned when I talked to Republicans on Thursday. His past controversy over attending a meeting with a white supremacist group may be disqualifying.
  • Mac Thornberry: Thornberry is a proven conservative who has been in Congress since the Republican Revolution of 1994. That gives him a sort-of crossover appeal that might allow him to be a compromise choice to end the fighting between the establishment and the conservatives. Another factor in Thornberry's favor: He comes from a big Republican state (Texas) with a big Republican congressional delegation that could net him lots of votes.
  • Greg Walden: The current chair of House Republicans' campaign arm, Walden (Ore.) has won plaudits for his political savvy and strategic mind. But he's a Boehner guy. And will Republicans really vote someone from the Pacific Northwest to lead them?
  • Dan Webster: The Florida congressman got 12 votes for speaker at the beginning of this year — the most for any candidate not named "John Boehner." And in the run-up to McCarthy's collapse on Thursday, the Freedom Caucus endorsed Webster as its choice. There's a big difference between being the "protest vote guy" and being the next speaker, though.
  • Lynn Westmoreland: The Georgian has signaled he's running. But with his time as the deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee viewed as something short of a success, it looks like a long-shot bid.