Hard-line conservative Republicans, emboldened by their role in the resignation of House Speaker John A. Boehner, are struggling to recruit a candidate with enough political capital and grass-roots support to challenge Boehner’s heir apparent.
That contender, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), announced his bid for speaker Monday, but by sharing Boehner’s relaxed personality and center-right Republican politics, he would almost certainly face similar problems from the conservative wing from the start and skepticism about whether he can truly give voice to the base’s frustrations.
McCarthy pledged to “heal the divisions in our conference with work, time, and trust.” He stressed unity to a group infamous for its acrimony. “I look forward to fighting with you for our shared conservative principles,” he said in a letter to colleagues.
McCarthy’s notice came hours after two potential rivals took themselves out of the running. Both Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), a prominent conservative who has clashed with Boehner, and Rep. Peter J. Roskam (Ill.), a former chief deputy whip who has taken a leading role in calling for party harmony, announced that they would not seek the speaker’s post.
Those moves followed decisions last week by a pair of conservatives — Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) — that they, too, would not run for the speakership.
That flurry of passes leaves only Rep. Daniel Webster (Fla.) — a long-shot contender who made an unsuccessful run for speaker earlier in the year — openly challenging McCarthy. And there are signs that conservatives see a better opportunity to shape the contest to replace McCarthy as majority leader, should he win the speaker’s gavel.
“Nothing is decided,” Rep. Scott Garrett (N.J.) said when asked Monday where he and his fellow conservatives would throw their support. “We’re still discussing how and why we got here as a conference, not about how to rearrange the chairs.”
The jockeying for that No. 2 post in the House intensified Monday as Ryan and Hensarling both endorsed Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), the conservative Budget Committee chairman, to be the next majority leader — passing Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.). Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), who had been considering a run, decided Monday to bypass the race.
McCarthy’s widening path to power amid an unsettled Republican Party landscape reflects both his ability to navigate the byzantine, relationship-driven world of Congress and the inability of House conservatives to put forth their own heavyweight candidate for speaker.
“We’ve seen the tail wag the dog in this House over the past week, but regardless of what has happened, Kevin McCarthy will be the next speaker,” said Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (Ohio), a Boehner ally. “The majority of our majority recognizes that we need a speaker who can represent every Republican. And if the people who have tangled with the leadership are mad, they should be mad at James Madison. Having the House doesn’t enable you to get everything you want.”
The scene of House conservatives fumbling as they try to translate their ideological fervor into leadership power is a familiar one. A year ago, McCarthy easily succeeded then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor after Cantor was defeated in a primary and coup attempts targeting Boehner ahead of the past two speaker elections were poorly executed.
Still, there is an ongoing push to draft another candidate for speaker , stoked by headstrong voices on talk radio and on conservative Web sites. In interviews Monday, several heads of conservative organizations said they are hopeful they can find a consensus pick.
“Someone’s got to step up,” said Adam Brandon, chief executive of the activist group FreedomWorks. “Someone’s got to volunteer to get in there, and it’s not just the speaker’s race, because if Kevin McCarthy is going to be speaker, you’ve got to be damned sure that I am expecting that we have one of our true-blue guys as majority leader.”
Price, who led an ill-fated effort to hew to strict spending caps during GOP budget discussions this year, is well regarded among House conservatives, but he is not a member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and does not have the demeanor of a firebrand.
Roskam said the change Republican voters are demanding has more to do with style than with ideology.
“We’ve got to change the disposition of this conference; otherwise, we’ll be right back into this situation in six months,” he said in an interview. “We’d be in better shape if we were more rhetorically aggressive with the administration. . . . Our base perceives us as looking at a chessboard and thinking, ‘Oh, 10 moves down, we’re going to lose.’ They’d like to see us go fight instead of thinking too much about how we’ll lose the king.”
Some conservative media voices have already raised alarms about McCarthy’s likely rise to the speakership. Last week, talk-radio host Mark Levin told Breitbart News that McCarthy is a “wheeler and dealer . . . not a principled conservative.”
Writing at National Review’s Web site Monday, Jim Geraghty warned that the window for conservatives is closing: “If grass-roots conservatives want one of their own to be speaker, they have to unite quickly behind an alternative.” Or else, he warned, McCarthy “is a slam-dunk” to replace Boehner (Ohio).
In a sign that conservatives may already be looking past the speaker’s race, Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), a vocal Freedom Caucus member who led the charge against Boehner, said Monday that he saw the leadership races in terms of building a team that crosses ideological lines.
“I think it would do the conference good to have a moderate and a conservative and those in between at the table to represent the diversity of the conference,” said Meadows, who introduced a measure to depose Boehner in July, heightening pressure that eventually led Boehner to exit.
But Meadows said that as many as 60 House members may withhold their votes in the speaker’s race, seeking assurances from McCarthy and other candidates that they will be “committed to an open and fair process,” one that does not sideline conservatives in ways Boehner was accused of doing.
Webster’s candidacy has stirred mild interest from conservatives, and he could draw votes from members who are looking to send a message to McCarthy if no one else enters the speaker’s race.
“We need to transform the process here, and if we did, many of the problems we face, many of the decisions we face would go away,” Webster said Monday evening, after emerging from a weekly prayer session in McCarthy’s office suite.
Webster, who ran for speaker in January and won 12 votes, has cast himself to colleagues as someone who would revamp the way the House GOP sets its policy agenda by more actively involving conservatives. His supporters have been passing around his mini-manifesto, titled “Widgets, Principles, and Republicans,” to colleagues.
“Whoever emerges as a candidate had better assure and make a firm commitment that they’re going to listen,” said Jim Pfaff, a conservative strategist who is close with the House Freedom Caucus. “There is real concern among the group that if we move forward with the same kind of leadership, we’ll have the same kind of problems. . . . Webster understands that.”
Most GOP members understand that Boehner’s departure provides only a short break. “You’re not going to have a Moses come in and come up with a way to solve our problems,” said Rep. Joe Barton (Tex.). “Our problems will be the same. People know they won’t be able to be Moses, even if they want the job.”
None of this is likely to overcome the loyalty McCarthy built during his recruitment of the 2010 House GOP class, which gave him the edge in that year’s race for majority whip and in 2014 for majority leader. “There is no replacement for those relationships and the time he has spent with them over the years,” said Neil Bradley, a former McCarthy adviser.
In his letter to colleagues, McCarthy referred to those relationships: “You all know me. We’ve spent late nights on the House Floor together. I’ve visited your districts and met your families and constituents. More importantly, I have gotten to know your ideas, your goals, and your vision for our conference and our country.”
But he also addressed conservatives’ discontent over Boehner’s handling of House business: “I know that the People’s House works best when the leadership you elect listens to members and respects the legislative process entrusted to committees.”