This is not 2015.
And that means that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is in a much different position from when he ran for House speaker almost seven years ago.
On its face, McCarthy’s prospects to become speaker appear markedly better. But the recent leak of audiotapes and text messages surrounding the riot could ice McCarthy’s aspirations.
So, turn back the clock to 2015.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, abruptly announced his resignation in the fall of 2015 after an audience at the Capitol with Pope Francis.
McCarthy hoped to ascend to the speaker’s suite to succeed Boehner. In fact, McCarthy’s path to matriculate accelerated dramatically in 2014 after then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., stunningly lost his primary. McCarthy was majority whip at the time and quickly became majority leader after Cantor resigned. Current House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., then won a three-way race to slide into the final leadership slot, defeating former Reps. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., and Peter Roskam, R-Ill.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)
(Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
But McCarthy faced problems in the autumn of 2015. Rumors swirled about McCarthy’s personal life. He appeared on Fox and bragged about the GOP’s efforts to undercut Hillary Clinton, the prospective 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” said McCarthy. “But we put together a Benghazi Committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”
House Republicans assembled the Benghazi panel after an attack on U.S. government facilities in Libya. Militants killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith. Two CIA contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, also died. Republicans quickly moved to blame Clinton, then Secretary of State, for a failure to respond properly to the attack.
But Democrats — and even some Republicans — believed the Benghazi inquiry was just a political weapon to weaken Clinton. Then, when McCarthy appeared on Fox, it appeared he may have said “said the quiet part out loud.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a Democratic presidential candidate, testified on Capitol Hill before the House Benghazi Committee.
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
It’s conventional wisdom that the Benghazi remarks short-circuited McCarthy’s bid for Speaker. That’s partially true. But in reality, a lot of Republican members were searching for a reason to oppose McCarthy. The Benghazi comment presented Republicans who were hesitant about McCarthy justification to pull their support.
Here is what it takes to become speaker of the House: The successful candidate secures a simple majority of the House. In other words, if the House has 435 sitting members, you need 218 votes. And it’s notable that the House often has fewer than 435 occupied seats. Five speakers have actually achieved control of the gavel with fewer than 218 votes since 1913. As of this writing, the House clocks in at 430 members with five vacancies. So one would need 216 votes to become Speaker in a 430 member House.
In the fall of 2015, Fox was told by a source close to McCarthy that his ceiling for votes for Speaker was 219. That’s an outright majority of the entire House, but the figure is a little close for comfort.
McCarthy knew he had to pull a rabbit out of a hat if he wanted to be Speaker in 2015. It was clear Republicans weren’t completely on board with McCarthy. Grumbling abounded.
After a floor vote one day, McCarthy eluded his security detail and ducked into an ornate “annex” the majority leader is afforded near the chamber. There was chatter about GOPers trying to recruit then-Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to run for Speaker. Gowdy summoned then-Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., to accompany them. Gowdy announced shortly thereafter that he wouldn’t run for Speaker.
House Benghazi Committee Chairman, Trey Gowdy (R-SC), participates in a news conference with fellow Committee Republicans after the release of the Committee’s Benghazi report on Capitol Hill June 28, 2016 in Washington, DC.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
McCarthy suddenly quit the speaker’s race just as the Republican Conference was prepared to vote. Keep in mind that House Republican Conference and the House Democratic Caucus only nominate their candidates for speaker in private, but the vote for speaker takes place on the floor. So even if you won in the GOP Conference or Democratic Caucus, you may still be short of votes on the floor.
McCarthy retreated to the sidelines. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., along with former Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Bill Flores, R-Fla., flirted with a Speaker bid. But McCarthy’s withdrawal prompted Republicans to pressure House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to run the for job — even though Ryan said repeatedly he didn’t want it.
House Republicans rallied around Ryan and the Wisconsin Republican became speaker. McCarthy has remained as either majority leader or minority leader since then.
Republicans are nearly boastful about their chances of gaining control of the House this fall. McCarthy is eyeing the Speakership. And the McCarthy of 2022 — or even 2023 — is not the McCarthy of 2015.
After initially opposing former President Trump, McCarthy re-aligned himself with Mr. Trump. Now audio recordings are leaking all over the place from the New York Times showing calls McCarthy had with fellow GOP leaders following the Capitol riot. In one call, McCarthy ditched the former president. But a few weeks later, McCarthy made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and posed with the President — presumably patching things up.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort is seen in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., February 8, 2021.
“That fast pivot on Trump in January is very noteworthy,” said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution. “Is he with Trump? Is he against Trump? How positive is he towards the former President? Those things are going to matter within that GOP caucus.”
But the repeated leaks show that if Republicans seize the majority this fall, the knives are out for McCarthy. Perhaps among fellow top GOPers.
“What you’re dealing with in these calls and meetings is a team. But very much a team of rivals,” observed Doug Heye, a former top aide to Cantor when he was majority leader.
But so far, former President Trump hasn’t lowered the boom on McCarthy. The former president and McCarthy spoke late last week after the first wave of tapes. Now, there are more tapes with McCarthy worrying about the riot and venting about fellow Republicans potentially putting the security of lawmakers and the Capitol itself at risk.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who opposes McCarthy for Speaker, decried remarks by the California Republican as “the behavior of weak men, not leaders.
But so far, most Republicans are still standing by McCarthy.
National Republican Congressional Committee chair Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, during an interview on Fox News
“Why are we talking about this a year-and-a-half after it happened,” groused Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, on Fox. “Americans don’t care about this nonsense.”
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Tex., dismissed all of this as “swamp talk.”
McCarthy told House Republicans at a meeting Wednesday morning that there were efforts to divide the party.
“He’ll be Speaker,” predicted Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C. “He got a standing ovation.”
Some Republicans chided the press for pressing Republicans about McCarthy.
“What you guys really need to do is focus on issues that America cares about,” lectured Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga. “Inflation. Border security. Increasing crime. If you don’t do that, you’re doing a disservice to the American people.”
And this is why McCarthy, circa 2022, is a lot different from McCarthy 2015. Republicans are willing to get behind him. And Mr. Trump hasn’t trash-talked McCarthy.
“(Former President Trump is) very accepting of the people who were against him but then turned for him,” said Heye. “But what we don’t know is when does Donald Trump potentially put in a sword.”
First, Republicans must win the House in November. If they do, McCarthy’s future hinges on two things: the size of the GOP potential majority and the former President.
McCarthy will certainly lose a few votes in the speaker’s race. But many conservatives in the House will back him — so long as Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, is on board. Then, it’s up to President Trump.
McCarthy, circa 2015, isn’t the same McCarthy in 2022.
The question is what does McCarthy, circa 2023 look like?
Chad Pergram currently serves as a congressional correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in September 2007 and is based out of Washington, D.C.