McCarthy heads into next Congress with eye on speaker’s gavel

Kevin McCarthy entered Tuesday's House Republican leadership elections in a stronger position than ever before.

McCarthy, who took over as the top House Republican last year following the crushing Democratic wave of 2018, was unanimously reelected as minority leader after he helped lead the GOP to surprising pickups of seats this year.

His top deputies will also remain in their posts next year. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) were both reelected to their posts without opposition. And Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota also won another two-year term leading the House GOP’s campaign arm, following the party’s surprisingly successful election cycle.

Republicans are convinced that with Joe Biden in the White House, they can win back the majority in 2022. That would put McCarthy in a prime position to make a play for the speaker's gavel, long a dream job for the California Republican.

“Republican success two weeks ago was a historic expansion of our party. I couldn't be more proud of this team,” McCarthy said in a statement before the elections for the top party positions. “Our focus now is forward-looking, and this conference is completely united and energized to build on our movement and deliver results for the American people.”

House Republicans met in-person, despite the pandemic, on Tuesday — in a Capitol Hill hotel, thanks to a waiver from Washington, D.C., officials — to pick their leadership team. Leadership candidates pitched themselves to their colleagues during speeches in the Capitol Monday evening.

There are still 10 House races that haven’t been called or are heading toward recounts, but Republicans have gained at least nine seats so far, and that number is likely to grow. During the 117th Congress, House Democrats will be left with the smallest margin of control for either party in nearly 20 years.

"I don't know about all of you, but we are so close that I can taste the majority," said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who formally nominated McCarthy for GOP leader. "And there is nobody we have to thank more for being in this position at this time than Kevin McCarthy."

McCarthy, 55, pushed to recruit more women and minorities to run as Republicans throughout the cycle, a move that was vindicated on Election Day as those candidates drove the GOP gains. There will now be at least 28 women in the GOP conference. Despite Democrats having a clear fundraising advantage, McCarthy raised a total of $103 million this cycle for his challengers and incumbents. And even though the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered the campaign season, McCarthy still spent more than 100 days on the road doing events this year, visits that earned him goodwill inside his conference.

In notable ways, McCarthy’s internal standing is more assured now than it was in 2015, when the California Republican was forced to withdraw his bid to become speaker following then-Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) resignation. At that time, conservative GOP hardliners derailed McCarthy’s rise to the speaker’s chair, clearing the way for Paul Ryan’s ascension instead and raising questions about McCarthy’s future.

Now those conservatives have nothing but praise for McCarthy, thanks in part to his close relationship with President Donald Trump, and Ryan has long since left Congress. There is no other Republican who could — or would — challenge him for leadership at this time.

McCarthy will also be buoyed by a big freshman class that owes its allegiance to him.

“If you look at, including retirements, we’re gonna have almost 40 [new members],” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio.) “And they basically understand that McCarthy helped get them here. They’re going to be loyal to him.”

“Kevin has done a tremendous job holding everyone together,” added Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina, who is in line to become Republican Conference secretary. “I’ve never seen our conference so unified and optimistic about its future.”

House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaks at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Goodyear, Ariz.

But McCarthy also faces potential headaches in the next Congress from freshman lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has pushed elements of the QAnon conspiracy theory and has already clashed with some of her future Republican colleagues.

Over the past two years, McCarthy worked hard to unite the party and win over his former rivals. He helped conservative Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who challenged McCarthy for minority leader in 2018, secure the top GOP spot on the Judiciary Committee. McCarthy also temporarily placed Jordan on the Intelligence Committee during the high-profile impeachment hearings — a coveted role for Jordan, one of Trump’s fiercest defenders.

Those moves won McCarthy plaudits from the conference. Before the Nov. 3 election, Jordan vowed to back McCarthy for GOP leader even if Republicans lost seats, as was widely expected.

McCarthy is also credited with helping elect a record-breaking number of GOP women to the House. In a break from the past, he and Scalise both got involved in primary races involving female candidates. And while the National Republican Congressional Committee doesn’t pick sides in primaries, Emmer made recruiting more women and minorities a top priority.

“To have Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise double down on their support, I think it was a sea change,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who launched a PAC dedicated solely to electing more GOP women, said in an interview after the election.

McCarthy, one of Trump’s closest allies on the Hill, has received criticism for echoing the president’s refusal to concede his loss in the presidential race. "President Trump won this election, so everyone who's listening, do not be quiet," McCarthy said during an appearance on Fox News last week, a statement that was widely panned in the media.

McCarthy, however, has refused to back away from Trump, saying the president’s so-far fruitless legal challenges have to be allowed to play out. Other Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have slowly and cautiously started acknowledging that Joe Biden will likely be sworn in on Jan. 20.

Scalise, also 55, remains a potential successor to McCarthy one day. The two work well together, although they have different operating styles. Scalise raised more than $60 million this cycle, and he has earned respect throughout the caucus after surviving a shooting at a GOP congressional baseball practice. Scalise also forged his own close relationship with Trump, which has played well in the GOP conference.

Cheney, 54, will continue serving as the highest-ranking woman in the GOP. And she has proven she isn’t afraid to speak out when she disagrees with members of her own party.

Some thought Cheney, who has been critical of Trump on the coronavirus and foreign policy, was positioning herself for a rise in leadership in the event of a Trump loss. But her statements spurred a backlash from conservatives, with some of them calling for Cheney to be challenged for her leadership post. No one, however, stepped up, and the Wyoming Republican will continue as the No. 3 House Republican unopposed.

“Our entire conference is unified and ready for the challenges ahead of us," Cheney said in a statement. "The battle for the majority in 2022 will be real and competitive, but it’s one we’re ready for and one we have to win because the future of our country is at stake.”

Three other Republicans ran for spots in leadership unopposed: Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, was selected to serve as vice chair of the conference; Hudson, a deputy whip, won his bid for conference secretary; and Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama secured another two-year term as policy chair.

The Republican Study Committee will also select a new chair on Thursday. Banks is running unopposed.

With the party largely united — and feeling good about the GOP’s prospects in two years — there is expected to be zero drama during Tuesday’s leadership elections.

“[McCarthy] has cemented his leadership, not just for right now, but for a long time to come,” Banks said.

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