House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives who everyone thought would replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House, unexpectedly dropped out of the race on Thursday, throwing his entire party into teary chaos. Seriously: When he told the caucus his decision Thursday morning, some of his supporters—all grown-ass Republican men—actually burst into tears.
"Over the last week it has become clear to me that our conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader," McCarthy said in a prepared statement following the closed-door meeting with House Republicans, where the party had been expected to vote on Boehner's successor. According to members who attended the meeting, McCarthy told his colleagues that he was "not the one to unify the party" — a stunning pivot for a politician who has rapidly as-cended in the House, and who, by some accounts, had been campaigning for the position up until that morning.
Ironically, the deep divisions that led to McCarthy's downfall also contributed to his rise. Since the Republicans swept into the House majority back in 2010, the party Establishment has struggled to keep its fringe hardliners in line. McCarthy, who has only been in Congress since 2008, only became Majority Leader last year, after those hardliners succeeded in booting his predecessor, Eric Cantor, out of office in an upset by a little-known primary challenger in his home district.
Boehner himself faced an internal revolt back in January, and prior to his announcement that he would retire at the end of October, there were rumors that Republican Congressman Mark Meadows and other members of the House Freedom Caucus, a small but powerful group of ultraconservatives, would force a vote to remove him as Speaker. The Hill reported then that House conservatives were "warm" to the idea of McCarthy as Speaker, and that at least one Freedom Caucus member told McCarthy he "could have his support."
So what changed? In the weeks since Boehner's retirement announcement, conservatives started to realize that McCarthy was just like the outgoing Speaker, except perhaps less savvy. That became very clear with his comments tying Benghazi committee to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's decline in the 2016 presidential polls. House Democrats jumped on the comment as proof that the committee's purposes are purely political.
As details emerged of McCarthy's decision to withdraw, some conservatives claimed that ru-mors of a brewing scandal caused McCarthy to step down. Red State editor Erick Erickson said in a blog post that emails sent out this week by an unnamed donor (later revealed by the Huffington Post to be Steve Baer, a conservative megadonor and "the world's most successful email harasser") to "91 people, including members of Congress" alleged that McCarthy was having an affair with North Carolina Congresswoman Renee Ellmers. Both McCarthy and Ellmers have denied the affair, and Ellmers had pledged support for Jason Chaffetz's bid for Speaker before McCarthy's announcement. Still, Erickson suggests that the rumor itself may have played a role in McCarthy's decision to step down. After all, who needs shit like that?
Earlier this week, longtime North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones also sent an ominous letter to Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, urging candidates to drop out "if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representative if they become public." In an interview with Fox News, Jones denied that the letter was directed towards McCarthy, and McCarthy ignored a question from a reporter about the letter at his news conference.
While the rumors remain unsubstantiated, they are further signs of the right-wing's growing displeasure with McCarthy. The grumblings led to an outright revolt Wednesday night, when almost every member of the Freedom Caucus pledged to support Florida Congressman Daniel Webster in the Speaker's race, raising questions about whether McCarthy would even have the votes to win the leadership race. ""We need somebody to get us 247," McCarthy said in an interview with Politico Thursday, referencing the total number of Republicans in the House. "I was never going to get us to 247."
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Now that McCarthy is out of the race, the House is in a full scramble to find a speaker. One of the many ideas to surface yesterday was the idea of a "caretaker speaker"—a figurehead who could lead the House through the 2016 election. One rumor floating around is that a longtime member from outside the GOP leadership, such as Congressman Greg Walden, of Oregon, or retiring Minnesota Congressman John Kline of Minnesota—or even a non-member such as Mitt Romney (according to at least one pundit) or Newt Gingrich (according to Newt Gingrich)—could take the gavel until the party finds a more permanent replacement after the next election. (Interestingly—or maybe stupidly—the Constitution technically allows for the Speaker of the House to come from outside of the House of Representatives.)
The two previously declared Speaker candidates, Webster and Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, both lack broad support in the House. Chaffetz acknowledged that his early candidate status wouldn't garner him much new support, saying, "Members want to get this right, more than they want to get the person who got in early." Meanwhile, Steve King said that Webster could have "up to 70 votes" in the race, which is still far short of the threshold needed to win the gavel.
Congressman Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican, has even suggested that a bipartisan coalition with Democrats to elect the next Speaker, citing a "rejectionist wing" of the GOP that has made "unreasonable demands." Dent vowed to wage a counter-rebellion against the Tea Party wing of the House, and said he would try to push a vote to renew the charter for the Export-Import Bank, an issue that divided Republicans in Congress earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the dream candidate for most Republicans—Congressman Paul Ryan—insists that he has no interest in being Speaker. A McCarthy ally who was expected to formally nominate him Thursday, Ryan has been floated as an ideal candidate for Speaker since Boehner an-nouncement his retirement, but continues to reject the pleas from his colleagues, including a personal plea from Boehner. Ryan eventually canceled all of his political and fundraising events for the rest of the week.
Ryan may in fact be the only hope to keep the quickly dissolving Republican coalition together, but even he would still have to try to keep the House Freedom Caucus and likeminded con-servatives happy. As Congressman Luke Messer said after McCarthy's announcement: "I don't know anyone who would want this job."
As for House Democrats, they're gleefully capitalizing on their opponents' dysfunction. "While House Democrats are trying to grow paychecks and fix our country's crumbling infrastructure, House Republicans are mired in a leadership scramble that has only gotten messier by the day," New York Congressman Steve Israel said in a statement to VICE. "It's infuriating and past time for Republicans to put American jobs above their own jobs."
Democratic Majority Whip Steny Hoyer's office added in their own statement, "Today's news is yet another sign that Republicans are unfit to lead the House and our country and that they will continue to prevent the House from achieving progress."
The confusion surrounding the Speaker's race has eliminated confusion from the other leader-ship race in the GOP. McCarthy said Thursday that he'll be staying on as House Majority Leader, a position that several conservative members had been jockeying for in the wake of Boehner's announcement. Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Tom Price of Georgia had both ben running to replace John Boehner. Neither returned our requests for comment on whether they intend to run for Speaker instead.
The only certainty by the end of the day was the fact that the traditionalist wing of the Republican Party is officially dying out. Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp, a frequent critic of the House leadership, perhaps summed it up best, tweeting Thursday that, "Today, the establishment lost."
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