The matter bubbled to the surface this week with the primary election of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a fringe House candidate in Georgia who espouses the QAnon conspiracy theory and has made numerous racist comments. Multiple Republicans implored McCarthy to help defeat her by supporting her primary opponent. But McCarthy refused, phoning the candidate in an apparent peace accord before the primary, while Trump embraced her on Twitter this week as a “future Republican Star.”
However, the frustration with McCarthy had already been brewing for weeks as Trump’s polling has sagged behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. According to interviews with more than 10 House Republicans — all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank — some GOP lawmakers are worried that McCarthy has tied the conference too much to Trump, refusing to stand up to the president or act as a buffer to distinguish the conference from him.
Others are also furious that he did not shield them from a recent Trump campaign demand that House members donate to the president’s reelection effort.
“There’s no doubt that McCarthy is a Trump loyalist, through and through,” said Doug Heye, a former House GOP leadership staffer who has known McCarthy personally for decades. “I think the challenge for everyone in the Republican conference is, at some point there will be a post-Trump world — whether that’s coming in three months or later. What direction does the party go?”
One House Republican was blunt in criticism of McCarthy, whom Trump has referred to as “my Kevin”: “He does nothing but lick Trump’s boots. That’s all he cares about — so no, it’s not helpful.”
The feeling, however, is far from unanimous. McCarthy, an affable politico, maintains a loyal crop of followers, including many conservatives who once viewed him as a foe. He also has raised $82 million for Republicans this cycle, more than the previous two GOP speakers.
“He’s our best candidate recruiter, our best fundraiser and our best political strategist — all rolled into one,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a McCarthy ally. “And he happens to have the best relationship, I would argue, out of anyone in Congress with the president of the United States — and that’s paid off for us. That’s kept us relevant and at the table while we’re in the minority.”
McCarthy spokesman Mark Bednar pushed back on the notion that McCarthy was in trouble. “House Republicans are united and singularly focused on working with President Trump to renew the American Dream, restore our way of life, and rebuild the greatest economy ever,” he said in a statement.
McCarthy’s ultimate test will come on Election Day, when not only Trump but the fates of several dozen Republican lawmakers and candidates hang in the balance. If Republicans pick up seats in conservative districts, McCarthy would be more likely to stave off a challenge.
“He becomes damaged goods [if Trump loses], but it could be offset if he is successful in helping the GOP conference win back a bunch of seats,” said one senior House Republican. “But if we lose . . . the Republican conference is probably going to be looking for something different in leadership.”
McCarthy, 55, has dealt with problems in the ranks before. When Freedom Caucus conservatives drove then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) into early retirement in 2015, the same group denied McCarthy the vote to succeed him, accusing McCarthy of being too accommodating to the left.
But McCarthy’s move to wrap himself in Trump, and keep the conference in lockstep with the president, has upended that dynamic. Now Freedom Caucus members such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) are among McCarthy’s top allies, while those with complaints hail from the moderate or establishment wings.
McCarthy’s embrace of Trump has baffled some who knew the moderate, small-business owner who came to Congress in 2007. But McCarthy, more so perhaps than predecessors such as former speaker Paul D. Ryan, is a political animal who understands alliances. When Trump won the nomination in 2016, he made a choice: He was going be with Trump, even as his other colleagues were squeamish.
“He changed and became fully committed on the Trump train,” said one House Republican. “Kevin has never been a conservative guy; he’s one of the most moderate guys in the House if you look at his voting record. But all of a sudden there was this metamorphosis where it was ‘Everything Trump.’ And look, there’s high-risk, high-reward with that.”
In 2016, it was McCarthy who persuaded Ryan and other House Republicans not to break with Trump over the “Access Hollywood” tape in which the then-candidate claimed that he could grab women by their private parts with impunity. And during Ryan’s tenure as speaker, McCarthy would often encourage the Wisconsin Republican to keep his disputes with Trump private for the sake of unity.
As minority leader, McCarthy has implored his members to do the same, as seen last fall when Republicans rallied together against Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. McCarthy was able to unite the far-right and the moderates under one set of talking points, a turn that might have been more difficult in previous years.
But still, some Republicans have questioned whether McCarthy has given Trump too much of a pass. In the summer of 2019, several Republicans implored him to stand up to Trump when the president told four Democratic congresswoman of color to “go back” to their countries of origin, though they were all Americans. McCarthy told one of those people, Rep. Paul Mitchell (Mich.), that Trump doesn’t like to be criticized.
In May, despite Trump’s massive war chest breaking records, McCarthy worked with the Trump campaign on a plan to get House Republicans to donate to the president’s reelection. A few weeks later, news broke that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 42 most vulnerable members had an average 5-to-1 cash advantage over their GOP opponents, while 30 Democratic challengers outraised their Republican opponents in the second quarter of 2020 — putting Democrats in a prime position to grow their majority.
Some GOP members were livid, wondering why they were called on to help fund the well-oiled Trump money machine when some of their own were in trouble.
Despite the private griping, McCarthy has much pulling in his favor. Beyond raising cash for Republicans, he has relationships that run deep and span the ideological spectrum of the House. He can rattle off the names of members’ spouses and remembers where their kids went to college — personal touches that have won him support.
His critics, however, say that personal touch is both a blessing and a curse. Unlike Boehner, whose bluntness rubbed many people the wrong way, McCarthy wants to “tell everybody what they want to hear,” as one member put it — and that presents its own problems.
“He’s the backslapper who wants to be everybody’s friend,” said the House Republican. “But when you’re the leader, you’ve got to make some hard choices, and you have to take firm positions . . . . He just does not like to do that.”
There’s also uncertainty about who would take his place or whether anyone would have the nerve to challenge him. Some Republicans have eyed House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), who recently took a political risk and worked to undermine Greene, realizing how much of a problem she could be for the House.
But while Scalise at one point pondered a McCarthy challenge years ago, the two seem to have made amends and worked together in the minority. Additionally, Scalise has also been loyal to Trump — so if Republicans go in another direction post-election, they could cast their eyes elsewhere.
That’s one of the reasons for all the recent chatter surrounding House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.), who has sought to create a lane for herself where she both supports Trump on most policy matters but isn’t afraid to call him out. At a time when Trump wouldn’t wear a mask and seemed to make fun of those who did, Cheney tweeted that real men cover their faces. She also backed Anthony S. Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, when the administration turned against him.
Former congressman Carlos Curbelo — a moderate Hispanic Republican who was recruited by McCarthy but lost his seat in the midterm backlash against Trump in 2018 — said the leader has found a way to “get through this tumultuous Donald Trump phase” while also readying the party for a post-Trump future. He has tried to expand and diversify the ranks of the increasingly white and male GOP, he argued. This year, for example, Republicans have recruited a record number of GOP women to run.
“Republican leaders have been in an impossible position for the last four years” because of Trump, but that’s not McCarthy’s fault, Curbelo said. “To count [McCarthy] out under any scenario is a major mistake. . . . Kevin has proven to be extremely resilient throughout his career.”