The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kevin McCarthy almost has the reins of a House majority. Can he hold on?

As the minority leader inches closer to taking the speaker’s gavel, the Republican leader will have to navigate a fractious conference with a likely slim majority

Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) watch Tuesday's election results in a room with staffers at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In the hours before polls closed Tuesday, Republicans saw the House majority firmly within their grasp.

Leaders had prepared scores of news releases outlining their Day 1 priorities, set to deploy around the same time Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would declare victory standing against a “Take Back the House” backdrop before the clock struck midnight at a D.C. hotel.

Instead, McCarthy took the stage hours later than expected Wednesday morning as Democrats clung to a small, but not insignificant, number of seats, halting Republican celebrations.

“When you wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority,” McCarthy declared in a four-minute speech shortly after 2 a.m.

Early 202 co-author Leigh Ann Caldwell reported from the Election Night party of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in D.C. on Nov. 8. (Video: The Washington Post)

Nearly a full day later, that prediction has yet to come to fruition. The House majority remains unknown as of Wednesday evening as numerous races remain close in districts Republicans believed they would easily win.

House Republicans, to be sure, are largely still expected to win the majority. But some are frantic over what appears to be a razor-thin victory as they stare down what many privately say is the impossible task of governing an ideologically fractious conference with slim margins.

At the center of that high-wire act is McCarthy, who methodically planned his path to the governing majority over the past four years as minority leader. While his calculations probably have not upended his chance to become speaker of the House, the expected thin margin of victory has complicated his path. Members at the far right of the conference are contemplating how to leverage the narrow majority to their benefit, while more-centrist members worry that they will be held hostage to fringe ideas, leading to a failure to govern, and that those demands for concessions from McCarthy will only grow.

“We have to figure out how to come together and work this party,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said Wednesday on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room.” “I’ll be pushing as hard as possible in the front on how to do that because I have a clear vision for it. But it’s going to require a lot of people doing the hard work.”

A thinner majority could plague Republicans in the same way House Democrats have spent the past term juggling a five-seat majority, emboldening members to make demands and stall legislation at their whim.

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Allies say the goodwill McCarthy fostered among the ideological factions within the GOP conference will help consolidate all 218 votes necessary to declare him speaker in January. But the expected slim majority will probably force him to make concessions on policy and other aspects of governing, according to more than 20 Republican lawmakers, strategists and aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

“Kevin McCarthy has worked incredibly hard, and he and [Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.)] have traveled this country, united the conference in policy … [and] recruited unbelievably qualified candidates,” retiring Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said Wednesday. “Leader McCarthy has the vision and, I think, the ability to unite this new conference going forward in the majority.”

A fractious conference looks to govern

Polls in the final days before the election continued to show Republicans were winning voters who said the economy remained their top issue. Republican lawmakers, aides and strategists, in turn, were preemptively taking a victory lap, touting McCarthy’s political instincts and recruitment success as key to a “red tsunami” in the House.

But since the tsunami fizzled out before it crashed ashore, some Republicans are questioning McCarthy’s strategy and deliberating whether the results will force him to redirect priorities — and recalibrate whom he listens to.

One House Republican, who won reelection Tuesday, posited that the projected margin of victory is a mandate for McCarthy to finally silence the election denialism and baseless claims that far-right candidates and lawmakers in the House GOP conference have embraced.

“Last night was embarrassing,” the lawmaker said. “We have the worst president since Jimmy Carter, the highest inflation in 40 years, and we don’t know if we got the majority when we woke up this morning? It’s embarrassing and humiliating and says a lot about the conference … There should have been a historic red wave, and instead it was low tide.”

The lawmaker specifically pointed to the party’s embrace of Greene, former president Donald Trump and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who align on the far right of the party, as a miscalculation. Some pointed to Boebert’s surprisingly tight race as a sign that voters in some parts of the country are rebuking the ideology in safe seats, let alone toss-up districts where they tend to reject the extremes.

That perspective was echoed by several House Republican aides, who recognize the expected slim majority could upend the relationships conservatives had cultivated to legislate and govern. While there are several pieces of legislation Republicans will be able to pass quickly — such as repealing money for the Internal Revenue Service in the Inflation Reduction Act, passing a parental bill of rights and expanding drilling for more energy to be produced in the United States — those responsible for curating policies worry the narrow margins will make it impossible to actually reach agreement on positions on which Republicans internally have intense disputes, such as immigration, government funding and lifting the debt limit.

It is an outcome Republicans had tried to avoid after witnessing how the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus held power over the speakerships of John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).

As the No. 2 behind both Boehner and Ryan, McCarthy embraced the Freedom Caucus after Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a founding member, challenged him for minority leader in 2018. Instead of casting the group aside, McCarthy cultivated a relationship with Jordan and brought the group to the decision-making table.

Doing so has kept the Freedom Caucus largely at bay over the years, though it has not prevented members from making demands. The results from the midterms will probably embolden the caucus to “demand aggressive reforms to return the People’s House back to the American people and make it function again,” as outlined in a memo the group circulated last month.

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To aid in his quest to clinch the speakership, McCarthy has promised to restore committee assignments for Greene and Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), add more members to the influential steering committee, and place Freedom Caucus members on their preferred legislative committees.

Still, Freedom Caucus members may be emboldened to demand that McCarthy restore the “motion to vacate the chair” rule, which allows any member, at any time, the ability to submit a motion to remove the speaker. It’s the kiss of death that doomed Boehner and Ryan.

Leadership aides said over the past several months that it was unlikely the Freedom Caucus would make such a demand, especially if the group’s numbers diminished. But Freedom Caucus members predicted before the election that if their ranks expanded, they could have much more influence than any of them previously imagined.

So far, a handful of staunch MAGA allies have won seats in the new majority, and it’s unclear how many more pragmatic members McCarthy recruited to help build his governing majority will win.

“It’s going to be contentious,” one GOP strategist involved in House races said. “He’ll have the same problems that Pelosi had — there will be a small group of extremists that will band together and make it brutal for him.”

Freedom Caucus members descended into D.C. on Thursday, where they discussed the upcoming leadership elections during their orientation for new members. Under discussion was whether to recruit someone to challenge McCarthy ahead of Tuesday’s leadership election.

“He’s not my first choice,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said outside the conservative Heritage Foundation headquarters.

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) was more explicit, noting that McCarthy “has done nothing to earn” his vote over the past two years as minority leader, which is why he’s calling for a challenger ahead of the Jan. 3 floor vote.

“The American people are ready for true, courageous, conservative leadership, and that’s what we need in the new Congress,” he said. Neither Gaetz nor Good said whom they preferred over McCarthy.

Negotiations with McCarthy over what the Freedom Caucus might want in exchange for its votes for his speakership have not begun in earnest, according to Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who said, “We need to wait until the numbers are in. So we’ll find that out and move from there.”

While the Freedom Caucus may have more pull, many members and senior GOP aides acknowledged it can only go so far. There is no consensus leader who is mobilizing the membership in a similar manner as Jordan was to disrupt Boehner and Ryan. Jordan continues to stick with McCarthy and has publicly reiterated his support for his onetime foe to become speaker.

Moreover, McCarthy can argue that he’s still the one who muscled the majority back, visiting 39 states since August and raising $500 million across his affiliated campaign and recruitment political action committees.

“If you’re minority leader the day the election, and you win the majority, [you’re] probably going to be the speaker,” McCarthy said at a leadership retreat in March. “They’re not going to change the coach between the playoff and the Super Bowl. Doesn’t mean they won’t hold my feet to the fire.”

The race for whip

Keeping the conference together will fall on McCarthy and whoever is elected majority whip, the person responsible for making sure members fall in line and vote the way leadership directs.

Before the midterm elections, GOP leadership aides were telegraphing that a majority would not seek bipartisan outcomes, aiming to make life difficult for President Biden and Senate Democrats facing reelection in 2024. Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee and officially announced he is running for whip, told reporters that he agreed with a lawmaker who told him an anecdote of an earlier razor-thin GOP majority being a time when lawmakers had to “work together.”

An aide to Emmer later said the congressman was talking about working within the different factions of the Republican conference.

But several other House Republican aides privately acknowledged they would have to seek Democratic support on key issues, something Democratic leadership aides said they would not easily dole out.

Some Republican strategists who spoke with The Washington Post on Wednesday were quick to throw Emmer under the bus, criticizing him for spending too much time readying his campaign for House whip and not enough on the overall GOP election effort.

“I’m surprised Rep. Emmer thinks his path to Republican whip is with the support of Democrats,” said David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth. “The fastest way for Republicans to return to the minority party would be to work with Democrats to pass Biden’s agenda. I don’t remember seeing a single NRCC ad about working with Democrats.”

Some of those same strategists, who praised McCarthy for his recruitment efforts ahead of Election Day, criticized Emmer for not building a strong-enough roster of candidates.

Others, however, noted that Emmer was a victim of his own success, having led the NRCC through a successful 2020 midterm election despite Trump’s loss. Emmer mentioned this himself on a call with reporters, saying the House GOP had won “low-hanging fruit” the previous cycle.

But Emmer defends what he called a good night for Republicans. “We won seats in two consecutive cycles. We are retaking the majority,” he said Wednesday. “No one said this was going to be easy. We were playing in Biden territory, and we still succeeded in firing Nancy Pelosi for good.”

Next week’s leadership races are expected to home in on these dynamics. While the expectation is that members will vote behind closed doors for McCarthy, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) for majority leader and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) for conference chair, the whip race will test the ideological makeup of the conference.

Trump’s orbit continues to favor Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), while more-moderate Republicans are hoping to stick with Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), who serves as chief deputy whip.

What is yet to be seen is whether McCarthy can navigate the tension between the Trump-friendly House Freedom Caucus and centrist Republicans, especially as Trump looms large over the conference. The former president is expected to announce his own political future as soon as Tuesday, the same day as House GOP leadership elections.

Some members hope leaders take steps to tamp down the fawning over Trump within the conference, because they believe it may have cost them a larger majority.

“If [McCarthy] does not put them in a corner with a dunce cap on, we are going to have a terrible time in the majority, and who knows what 2024 will look like after that,” a GOP lawmaker said.

But others noted that if Republicans did not ditch Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, they are unlikely to do so after a bad midterm result.

“Trying to pry the base of the party from Trump is impossible. It’s really, really, impossible,” a senior GOP aide said. “Even if he’s weakened and leaders want to move away from him, the base and Trump won’t allow that to happen.”

Tony Romm contributed to this report.

clarification

An earlier version of this article stated that Emmer told reporters he agreed with a lawmaker who told him that a razor-thin GOP majority will have to seek bipartisan consensus to pass legislation. It has been updated to clarify that he cited a razor-thin majority as an example of when lawmakers had to "work together," and that an aide to Emmer later said he was talking about working within different factions of the Republican conference.

correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified Rep. Drew Ferguson's state. He is from Georgia. The article has been corrected.

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