Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida is intent on nominating former President Donald Trump to be speaker of the House if the GOP flips the lower chamber next year, suggesting there’s a faction of rank-and-file Republicans who are not yet sold on promoting House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican, also has aired doubts about Mr. McCarthy‘s leadership. She’s frustrated over his inability to keep Republicans unified against President Biden.
And Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, one of the most prominent anti-Trump Republicans, says she won’t back Mr. McCarthy if she survives reelection, while some pro-Trump figures have tossed grenades at him from the sidelines.
Nonetheless, Mr. McCarthy is best positioned to win the gavel if things go the right way for Republicans in the midterm elections, according to GOP insiders.
Mr. McCarthy, who was first elected in 2006, has been a fundraising juggernaut, led the GOP‘s unexpected pickup of a net of 11 Democratic seats last election cycle, and kept the House Republican Conference mostly on the same page.
“Winning solves a lot of problems and I think Kevin’s argument is going to come down to, ‘I charted the course to win the majority, I had to eat a lot of crap for that strategy, and I think that was right,’” said Brendan Buck, a GOP strategist who worked for former Republican Speakers Paul D. Ryan and John Boehner. “I think that is going to be a very persuasive argument.”
Mr. McCarthy’s office declined to comment.
Mr. McCarthy’s allies say the criticism coming from the likes of Mr. Gaetz and Mrs. Greene is meritless and shows they are more interested in establishing personal brands than unifying the party.
Still, the grumbling from the party’s rabble-rousers is a reminder of the choppy waters Mr. McCarthy must navigate next year.
Mr. Trump, the GOP’s de facto leader, is the biggest wild card. He is crucial to energizing voters for the elections and could serve as a kingmaker in the GOP leadership battles on Capitol Hill.
Mr. McCarthy has worked hard to stay in the good graces of Mr. Trump. They talk on a regular basis.
So far, Mr. McCarthy has avoided the attacks Mr. Trump has leveled at other party leaders — most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. Buck said it is important to remember Mr. McCarthy has been eyeing the speaker’s gavel for years.
“People should not assume that Kevin is just waking up to this,” he said. “I can guarantee there is a file in his office with 200-something names on it and details on how much they think a person is firm with this, how many of them are a question mark, and there is a concentrated effort to make sure there are 218 votes.”
Mr. McCarthy fell short of that magic number when he sought the job following Mr. Boehner’s 2015 retirement announcement.
But those aspirations were dashed after the far-right House Freedom Caucus tossed their support behind the long-shot bid of Rep. Daniel Webster, making it impossible for Mr. McCarthy to win and setting the stage for Mr. Ryan’s rise.
Mr. McCarthy has since worked to cultivate stronger relationships with insurgent members of the caucus.
He developed close ties with Reps. Jim Banks, chair of the arch-conservative Republican Study Committee, and Jim Jordan, the same Ohio Republican whom Mr. Boehner has called a “legislative terrorist.”
Mr. Jordan, a co-founder of the tea party-inspired House Freedom Caucus, ran unsuccessfully against Mr. McCarthy to become minority leader after Democrats won the House majority in 2018.
Mr. Jordan was later tapped to serve as the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Jordan and Mr. Banks have both voiced support for Mr. McCarthy as speaker.
Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping Mr. McCarthy’s ties to Mr. Trump and far-right lawmakers will hurt the GOP’s ability to win over voters that never bought into the Trump show.
“We must hold the House,” Rep Adam B. Schiff said during a recent appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” “If Kevin McCarthy had been speaker in 2020 … he would have overturned [the election] result in the House.”
“He will do whatever Donald Trump tells him to do,” the California Democrat said. “Someone like that can never be allowed to go near the Speaker’s office.”
Immediately after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Mr. McCarthy said Mr. Trump bears responsibility for the riot, but the congressman later walked back those remarks.
He backed efforts to remove Ms. Cheney from House GOP leadership after she refused to dial down her criticism of Mr. Trump and his stolen election claims. He rallied Republicans against a proposed 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot, arguing that the scope of the inquiry should extend beyond the attack.
He also pulled his appointees to the Jan. 6 select committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nixed his plan to put Mr. Jordan and Mr. Banks — both Trump allies — on the panel, which set a new precedent for the majority.
Mrs. Pelosi later tapped Ms. Cheney and fellow anti-Trump Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois to the committee.
However, Mr. McCarthy still has caught flak for helping to raise money for some GOP lawmakers that voted to impeach Mr. Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riots. He’s also weathered Republican jabs for not doing more to stop — or later punish — House Republicans who earlier this month helped pass Mr. Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.
The bill wouldn’t have passed without those 13 Republican votes, which included a ranking member of a committee, two of the three longest-serving members of the House, a couple of anti-Trump lawmakers not seeking reelection, and a lawmaker that switched parties last year to protest the Trump impeachment push.
Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who previously served in the House where he occasionally knocked heads with Mr. McCarthy, said last week that if those 13 Republicans go unpunished it makes no difference if Republicans or Democrats have the gavel.
“If you want to be speaker of the House, you have got to be able to control those members,” Mr. Meadows said on the “Firebrand with Matt Gaetz” podcast.
Asked to grade GOP leaders, Mr. Meadows said they are “not skating to where the puck is, so I would give them a grade of a D.”
“You need to make sure when you have [Democrats] on the ropes. You don’t throw in the white towel of surrender,” he said.
Peter Navarro, who served as a top trade policy adviser to Mr. Trump, also criticized Mr. McCarthy for pulling Trump advocates off the select committee panel.
“Kevin McCarthy made arguably the dumbest checkers move in a chess game I’ve ever seen. He lost control,” Mr. Navarro said last week on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic” show.
Despite the blowback on Mr. McCarthy, a clear alternative has yet to emerge. Mr. McCarthy‘s allies ask: Who else could win, and in what scenario does someone who delivers the majority not end up as speaker?
Mr. McCarthy sent a message last week.
Speaking on the House floor for 8 hours and 32 minutes, a modern-day record, he railed against Mr. Biden’s roughly $1.75 trillion social welfare and climate bill.
“This is the single most reckless and irresponsible spending bill in our nation’s history,” Mr. McCarthy said. “As the leader of the Republicans in the House, I say, on behalf of the tens of millions of citizens we proudly represent, enough already.”
The speech, which was filled with rhetorical red meat, didn’t stop House Democrats from passing their bill, but it was viewed by some as a strategic win for Mr. McCarthy.
“This was an opportunity to demonstrate himself as a leader on the House floor in a speech that is going to galvanize support in the House conference,” said Doug Heyes, a GOP strategist who worked for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Mr. McCarthy also got a shoutout from Mr. Trump.
“Great job by Kevin McCarthy last night, setting a record by going over 8 hours of speaking on the House Floor in order to properly oppose Communism,” Mr. Trump said. “We must never forget what the Democrats have done, at the highest level of evil.”