In quest to become House speaker, Kevin McCarthy tries to hold together a fractious GOP

Ahead of the midterm elections that are expected to hand Republicans control of the House, GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy is navigating a complicated path between the Trump wing and moderate Republicans.

  • Republicans are expected to take back the House after November's midterm elections.
  • GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy is hoping to become the next Speaker, but he faces political headwinds.
  • He's been able so far to keep most of his caucus together, but will Matt Gaetz and other Trump-ers bail?

WASHINGTON – Kevin McCarthy has had to play the role of political acrobat a lot lately.

On his far right, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy must deal with unbridled conservatives who protest the GOP establishment, attend white nationalist rallies and talk about things like cocaine and orgies.

Closer to his own right, McCarthy finds more traditional Republicans who are tired of hearing about things like alleged orgies and cocaine use, white nationalists and "RINOs" (conservative parlance for "Republicans In Name Only").

And there's even a few House Republicans who have struck out on their own in opposition to Donald Trump, a group that is small but vocal.

Holding that range of Republicans together is a tricky tightrope, but if McCarthy is ever to be Speaker of the House – a goal he has made no bones about pursuing – he has no choice but to try and walk it.

Heavy opposition from one conservative faction or another could hurt Republican chances to win control of the U.S. House in this year's election and deny McCarthy his long-held desire to become Speaker.

McCarthy faces a basic dilemma, said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"If he tries to silence the crazies, they will turn against him, possibly denying him a majority in the House vote on the speakership," Pitney said. "If he doesn't try to silence the crazies, the party will suffer reputational damage, and non-crazy Republicans will start looking for another leader." 

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A bumpy road to speakership?

To be sure, Republicans have a very good chance of prevailing in House races this fall, not only based on how poorly the party in power traditionally performs in the mid-terms but also on recent polling that voters would prefer Republicans re-assume power.

And without a viable challenger yet to emerge, McCarthy remains a good bet to be the next Speaker, replacing Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

Alice Stewart, who communicates regularly with a number of GOP lawmakers but hasn't talked to McCarthy recently, said the California Republican has nimbly navigated his fractious caucus – so far.

"McCarthy has strong support because he is a prolific fundraiser and has tremendous depth on policy," said Stewart, who served as the chief spokeswoman for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2016 presidential campaign. "The wildcard is the new incoming GOP member class, who could be campaigning on an anti-establishment, non-vote for McCarthy, platform. If that were to happen, anything's possible."

McCarthy has raised more than $100 million to date during the 2022 election cycle, money he can use to boost candidates in dozens of House seats Republicans have targeted in November.

In recent months, McCarthy has had to confront uber-conservatives like Madison Cawthorn of North CarolinaMarjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Matt Gaetz of Florida – all fervent Donald Trump supporters.

At the party's other extreme, Cheney, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year, has said she won't support McCarthy for Speaker next year – if she's able to survive her own primary against a Trump-backed candidate. Her opposition to McCarthy is due in part because he has been "especially active in attempting to block the investigation of events of Jan. 6," she said.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an ally of Cheney, is among the more moderate Republicans who say McCarthy has been overly indulgent of far right members like Greene. Speaking on the Bulwark Podcast in February, Kinzinger said of McCarthy: "Even if he does somehow become Speaker, he's gonna have to have a good cellphone plan because he will be calling Marjorie Taylor Greene every day asking her what he can, what he can't, do."

But Kinzinger won't be around to vote on the next speaker since he's not running for re-election.

Some of the more conservative members have also been known to periodically pull McCarthy's chain on the speakership.

Back in November, Greene said McCarthy "doesn't have the votes" to be elected in early 2023 because the leadership allows some far-right members like her to be "constantly trampled on and abused."

Then there's Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman who has said he will nominate Trump himself to be Speaker of the House if Republicans win control.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy wears a Ukranian flag before US President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 1, 2022.

Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Taylor Greene

McCarthy's latest travails began with Rep. Madison Cawthorn and his comments about the extracurricular activities of colleagues. Cawthorn recently told a conservative podcast said he has seen lawmakers use cocaine and that he has been invited to participate in sex orgies.

An angry McCarthy held a closed-door meeting with Cawthorn and later told reporters that the North Carolina freshman admitted he had exaggerated his claims.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference being held in the Hyatt Regency on February 26, 2021 in Orlando, Florida.

The House Republican leader has also rebuked his GOP colleague for driving with a suspended license – Cawthorn has been cited twice, and faces a May court date – and for describing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a “thug."  

“He’s got a lot of members very upset,” McCarthy said. 

It was a rare public scolding from McCarthy, who has focused more on highlighting themes he thinks will play well in the mid-terms – rising inflation, high gas prices. increased government spending – than on the volatile personalities in his caucus. His office declined requests for comment.

In a statement recently, Cawthorn seemed to downplay any rift, blaming Democrats for the bad publicity while signaling his support for McCarthy.

"The left and the media want to use my words to divide the GOP" and are "terrified of Republicans taking back the House and seeing Leader McCarthy become Speaker McCarthy."

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It's not the first time McCarthy has held a private meeting with a wayward Republican.

McCarthy also spoke privately to Greene about her attendance at a white nationalist conference in late February. Greene has a history of controversial remarks, from threatening Democratic opponents to anti-Semitic suggestions that wildfires were being caused by lasers in space as part of a clean energy project sponsored by a corporate cabal that included "Rothschild Inc." 

A high-wire act 

McCarthy's challenge, said allies, is to keep in constant contact with members, even the ones who say outrageous things.

McCarthy's aim – he faced no opposition when he was elected GOP House leader at the start of the current Congress – is to keep the different groups in harness by focusing on broad goals that have support from Republicans across the spectrum.

That's one of the reasons McCarthy created task forces stacked with divergent issues to develop a common Republican agenda. Those issues include immigration, problems with "Big Tech," "China COVID accountability" and "parents rights," none of which are likely to provoke a fight among Republicans.

McCarthy doesn't say much about private encounters with members like Greene or Cawthorn – "my conversations with members are exactly that," he told reporters after meeting with Greene – and that's why some Republicans believe he has been too soft on some of the more difficult members.

From left, Republican Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

Former House Republican leader Eric Cantor said, like it or not, every member McCarthy deals with has won their own elections and has their own constituency. 

Members of all ideological stripes have one common denominator, said Cantor: They all want to be part of a Republican majority after the November elections.

So McCarthy's task, Cantor said, is to remind members "that they don't exist without the Republican conference," and "they won't be able to deliver on the promises they made to constituents unless they have the majority."

McCarthy is trying to avoid the fate of former Republican leaders John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who lost their positions in part because they took so much flak from their right wings.

"At some point, almost everyone on the high wire falls off – and this a high-wire act," said pollster Frank Luntz, a friend of the California Republican.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, one of the most outspoken House conservatives, is an ally of McCarthy. During a recent GOP retreat, Jordan praised the task forces and told reporters that "they will help keep the team together."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who had his own problems with conservative factions in his party, said McCarthy has "a good personality" and doesn't get "ruffled" by the inherent tensions of managing a group of ambitious politicians.

Describing himself as a friend and a fan of McCarthy, Gingrich said: "He knows that patience works much much better than anger."

Gingrich said McCarthy's potential problems with members aren't that big: "If you have five or six who are impossible, it's not necessarily a giant deal."

Of course, defection by "five or six" members could conceivably cost McCarthy a leadership vote when and if the time comes.

Gingrich predicted that the Republicans would win the House by anywhere from 20 to 50 seats. If the final margin is on the lower end of that spectrum, he said, McCarthy's position could be threatened "a little bit" – but that is the nature of the beast.

"Look, if you want to be Speaker, that's the business we are in," Gingrich said.

While McCarthy appears to be in control now, some allies wonder about his prospects long-term.

"It's an impossible balancing act because neither side is willing to give an inch," Luntz said.

Previous Republican leaders have had similar problems, Luntz said, "but it's never been this tough. It's never been this public."

Size of margin matters 

Many political analysts predict Republican control of the House because the party that holds the presidency often does poorly in mid-term elections. Democratic President Joe Biden currently has approval ratings hovering around the 40% mark.

If the GOP prevails, McCarthy is the likely to be Speaker of the House because it is common to elevate the party leader – but it could depend on numbers and circumstances.

Lara M. Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said McCarthy's chances may depend on a still-to-be-determined factor: the size of the prospective Republican majority.

"The larger the majority the GOP has, the greater the likelihood that McCarthy will become speaker because he will be able to allow some members to defect on the vote," Brown said.

Pitney said that if the Republicans have a narrow majority, "any small faction could have enormous leverage" and McCarthy would be willing to "give them whatever they want."