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Opinion No, Donald Trump probably can’t take down Kevin McCarthy

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on June 23. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)
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Donald Trump may be upset with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision to pull Republican appointments from the House Jan. 6 select committee. But don’t think for a moment that the former president’s discontent will damage McCarthy’s bid to become speaker. It won’t.

House members select their leaders based on a number of criteria. By far the most important are their ability to raise money and elect more members of the same party. McCarthy passes that test with flying colors.

He is a prodigious fundraiser, bringing in more than $104 million this cycle as of April for House Republican campaign coffers. That money, plus fundraising from outside allies such as the Congressional Leadership Fund, ensures that existing members and challengers alike will have the money to fend off Democratic foes. Many Republican members will owe their victories to McCarthy’s millions, and they will not lightly throw away the goose laying their golden eggs.

Members will also have to weigh Trump’s own fading brand. Republicans surely understand by now that an endorsement from Trump is not a ticket to the winner’s circle in Republican primaries. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) held off a strong Trump-backed challenger in her recent primary, and Mike Collins and Rich McCormick in Georgia easily turned back Trump endorsees in safe, open seats as well. The average Republican member will not want to anger Trump, but he or she also knows Trump’s displeasure does not augur political doom.

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Then there’s the question of who would serve as an alternative to McCarthy. It’s a political truism that you can’t beat someone with no one. House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (La.) isn’t especially close to Trump, and he was also taped shortly after the Jan. 6 riot suggesting that the party ought to move on from Trump. The third-highest ranking House Republican, Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), is a Trump favorite, but her relatively moderate record means she likely couldn’t garner majority support. Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), a Trump defender and former head of the House Freedom Caucus, remains too extreme for the median member. Plus, Jordan — who supports McCarthy — will also likely face resistance from those who note that many of the candidates he and the Freedom Caucus’s political arm have endorsed in primaries this year have lost.

The idea that Trump himself would want or take the job is laughable. The primary job of the speaker is to set the House’s daily legislative agenda and negotiate the details of bills. No one in his circle would seriously contend that detailed involvement in legislation is something Trump is remotely interested in. Besides, the speaker exists at the pleasure of the House and its majority. Trump would never place himself at the mercy of politicians, many of whom he knows privately loathe him even as they publicly sing his praises.

There’s only one scenario in which Trump’s anger could tip the scales against McCarthy: If Republicans massively underperform in November. Nonpartisan analysts are tipping the GOP for gains of 20 seats or more, and many privately think the total could go higher still. If the GOP instead gains only 10 or so seats despite McCarthy’s cash, members could think twice about whether they want him to guide their slim majority.

Such tight margins would also amplify the strength of the conference’s 20 or so extreme conservatives. That faction wouldn’t be strong enough to elect a speaker on its own, but it could withhold its votes and push for a replacement to McCarthy. Such a move could gain the support of others if Trump publicly backs it, but finding a person acceptable to all factions within the conference is easier said than done.

It’s increasingly becoming obvious that Trump is an important but not dominant player in the Republican Party. McCarthy should easily be able to withstand any push by Trump to replace him — unless he messes things up himself.

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