Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s shocking decision Thursday to drop out of the race for speaker presents conservatives with a perhaps once-in-a-generation chance to truly seize power in the House.
Having taken Speaker John Boehner’s scalp and now McCarthy’s, too, conservatives are in the driver’s seat, and everybody knows it.
From many accounts, McCarthy, of California, was derailed when some 40 House conservatives declared they would support another candidate, leaving the expected speaker-to-be without the 218 votes he would have needed to win in a full House vote.
That conservative faction is now calling the shots, and it has some clear demands: No speaker will be tolerated who will:
- Sit by while millions are spent by business groups to oust conservatives in primaries;
- Go behind the caucus’s back to negotiate legacy-buffing budget deals with President Barack Obama;
- Refuse to face with the White House over principle, or who quakes at the thought of shutting down the government.
Conservatives want the next speaker to be much more aggressive than Boehner — and, it turns out, McCarthy.
“They want a speaker who is going to go toe-to-toe with this president,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. “They don’t expect to win all the time. But they want them to fight.”
Here is a look at some of the leading possibilities for the top House post, in order of their rankings, by two conservative organizations, Heritage (H) and FreedomWorks (FW), based on votes in the current congressional session. The caucus must choose a candidate before the scheduled full House vote Oct. 29.
- Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio H: 96 percent; FW: 100 percent. The chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus has declined to run previously but could change his mind with McCarthy out. Appearing on “The Laura Ingraham Show” on Thursday before McCarthy’s announcement, Jordan said it is vital for the leadership to change. “The case we gotta make is the one the American people are making. When you have 60 percent of your voters — your voters, Republican voters — who think we’ve betrayed them. Not disappointed, not slightly off track — betrayed them. Then we had better figure this out. We had better start standing for the things that we told them we would stand for.”
- Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas H: 85 percent; FW: 91 percent. The seven-term congressman previously had taken his name out of the running for speaker. But one congressional aide said Hensarling could potentially be a “bridge” candidate who could unite the various factions of the caucus. The Financial Services Committee chairman has been a sometimes Boehner antagonist and is a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
- Rep. Tom Price of Georgia H: 80 percent; FW: 91 percent. Mentioned as a potential speaker candidate after Boehner’s announced his resignation, he had been locking up support for his planned run for majority leader. With McCarthy now remaining in that role, though, Price could decide to make a move for speaker. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that an interim speaker may be the way to go. “The best course would be for us to select a candidate for Speaker who will serve in that capacity for the next 15 months,” he said in a statement. “This would allow the House to complete the business in a responsible manner, providing ample time for everyone’s voices to be heard, leading into full leadership elections in November of 2016.”
- Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas H: 79 percent; FW: 91 percent. The Rules Committee chairman had been running for whip. He could decide to go for the top job instead.
- Jason Chaffetz of Utah H: 81 percent; FW: 82 percent. The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee publicly declared himself an underdog when he launched his bid for speaker on Sunday and bluntly admitted that he did not have the votes to win. But that was then. With McCarthy out, Chaffetz’s odds presumably improve somewhat. Still, his bid still must be considered a long shot. The Americans for Legal Immigration political action committee accuses him flip-flopping on the issue of citizenship for illegal immigrants. He told reporters after McCarthy’s withdrawal that he believes it is time for a “fresh start” in Congress, According to USA Today. “That was the whole genesis of my campaign, but we need to have a lot more family discussion, because we need to find somebody that our whole body can unite behind and do what we were elected to do.”
- Daniel Webster of Florida H: 77 percent; FW: 73 percent. He had been gearing up for a run against Boehner and now seeks the position on changed political terrain. Webster, a three-term representative and former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, promises to move power from a handful of men and women in the leadership to the rank and file.
- Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana H: 60 percent; FW: 73 percent. The current whip, Scalise was another candidate for majority leader. With Boehner retiring and McCarthy bowing out of the race to succeed him, that would leave Scalise next in line based on House leadership hierarchy. Of course, that could also hurt him. Among some representatives, anyone associated with Boehner may be tainted, and Scalise voted on Sept. 30 for a temporary spending measure that kept Planned Parenthood’s taxpayer support intact.
- Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin H: 57 percent; FW: 18 percent. He says he doesn’t want it, that he has a young family and wants to be with them, but that didn’t stop him from running for vice president. He was all the buzz after McCarthy dropped out, and the pressure on him is intense to change his mind. Many think he is the best possibility for uniting the caucus, having credibility with both conservatives and the establishment wing. Signs as of Thursday evening were that he is considering a run — or at least seriously mulling it.
The establishment is looking more and more desperate. And there’s an important parallel here to the presidential race. The establishment put all of its chips on McCarthy, and then when it became clear that McCarthy couldn’t get the votes, the establishment is left trying to scramble for Plan B. Meanwhile, that same establishment has put more than $100 million on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who — like McCarthy — is a highly flawed candidate.
Wouldn’t it be smarter for the establishment to change course on Bush now, instead of waiting until it finds itself facing yet another eleventh-hour crisis?
This piece first appeared in PoliZette.