Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is still favored to become the next House speaker, but his possible majority looks much smaller than expected.
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At his election night party Tuesday, Kevin McCarthy was heralded as the next speaker of the House.
But Republicans on Wednesday found little to celebrate as disappointing results rolled in from battleground districts across the country and the much-touted red wave failed to materialize.
McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) is still favored to become the next speaker — a long-coveted but elusive position that would make him the most powerful politician in the lower chamber and second in line to the presidency.
Republicans have a much easier path to securing the 218 House seats required to claim a majority. As of Wednesday morning, several races remained too close to call.
But it also appears increasingly likely that any GOP majority will be far slimmer than McCarthy had hoped. And that could complicate McCarthy’s path to the speakership as well as his ability to govern once there.
“There are some big storm clouds early on in 2023 that he’ll have to navigate, and he’ll have only a small majority,” said retiring Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), pointing to the expected showdowns over government funding and raising the debt ceiling.
A slim Republican majority would give significant leverage to even a handful of rebellious GOP House members, who could withhold their needed votes.
“Whether it be moderates or Freedom Caucus people who will refuse to buckle, it could be very tough. That’ll be an early test of his speakership,” Upton said.
At McCarthy’s somewhat low-key election night victory party Tuesday night in Washington, there was already speculation over whether his grip on the speaker’s gavel would be affected by the lackluster results.
“I think he ultimately becomes speaker,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky). But Tuesday’s results suggest that “he might have to give more concessions.”
Speaking to the crowd at the hotel ballroom early Wednesday morning, McCarthy said his efforts over the past two elections have strengthened the GOP.
“If you believe in freedom, hard work and the American dream, these results proved that there is a place for you in the Republican Party,” he said. “Now, tonight, we built upon those gains two years ago, and it is clear that we are going to take the House back.”
McCarthy’s road to the speakership has been a bumpy one.
He joined GOP leadership as chief deputy whip in 2009 during what was only his second House term. McCarthy continued to rise quickly, becoming majority whip in 2011 and majority leader in 2014.
A high-profile gaffe, however, cost him a chance at becoming speaker a year later when then-Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned from his post.
As House Republicans were searching for Boehner’s successor in 2015, McCarthy told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that the party’s Select Committee on Benghazi was driving down Democrat Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, suggesting the panel’s aim was more focused on harming Clinton’s White House prospects than investigating the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya.
McCarthy bowed out of the race for speaker, and House Republicans coalesced around then-Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisconsin).
Ryan retired after the 2018 midterms, leaving McCarthy as the top Republican when Democrats took control of the House.
McCarthy has since led the opposition — and transformation — of the House Republican Conference, where firebrands like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) and Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) are dealt with privately, and Trump critic Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) was booted from leadership.
It remains to be seen whether McCarthy faces any backlash over Republicans’ somewhat disappointing results.
With President Joe Biden’s low approval rating, persistent inflation and the fact that the president’s party almost always suffers big losses in the midterm, expectations were high for Republicans.
McCarthy and his allied super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, raised more than a quarter-billion dollars. That staggering sum was thought to have allowed House Republicans to capitalize on an already favorable political environment.
Instead, House Republicans are poised for only modest gains, though even a one-seat majority would give them committee gavels and subpoena power to investigate the Biden administration.
Some House Republicans voiced anger and disappointment Wednesday that the party underperformed.
“The RED WAVE did not happen,” tweeted Rep. Mayra Flores (R-Texas), who won a special election to her South Texas seat earlier this year but lost reelection to incumbent Democrat Vincente Gonzalez. “Republicans and Independents stayed home. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE RESULTS IF YOU DID NOT DO YOUR PART!”
House Republicans are expected to hold their internal leadership elections when members return to Washington next week. The only contested leadership races — right now, at least — in the House GOP are for majority whip and chair of House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee. The House floor vote for speaker will occur when the next Congress convenes on Jan. 3.
McCarthy and other House Republicans unveiled their policy agenda, the Commitment to America, in September. It features four planks: a strong economy, a safe nation, a future built on freedom and an accountable government. House Republicans, if in control, are likely to pursue a broad range of investigations into the Biden administration, including the president’s son, Hunter, next year.
McCarthy has also signaled that the House Republican Conference won’t write a “blank check” for Ukraine aid, and Republicans could use a standoff over raising the debt ceiling to try to extract concessions from Democrats to make cuts to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
“The American people are ready for a majority that will offer a new direction, that will put America back on track,” McCarthy said. “Republicans are ready to deliver it.”
But first, they still have to win the majority.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.