House Republicans face the possibility of sinking further into the minority on Nov. 3. President Donald Trump is trailing in key polls. But Kevin McCarthy is confident he’ll remain House GOP leader in the next Congress.
McCarthy has already won the support of Rep. Jim Jordan, his one-time rival, after helping the Ohio Republican secure top positions on high-profile committees. And House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, who was long thought to be waiting to replace McCarthy should he stumble or not seek the top position, is also expected to remain in that post, barring a disaster at the polls.
But others in leadership may not be as safe. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, currently the No. 3 House Republican, could see a leadership challenge after repeatedly criticizing Trump, while the future of National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Tom Emmer of Minnesota is also uncertain.
“I think I’m a pretty good vote counter. I would think I already have the votes,” McCarthy said in an hour-long interview in his Capitol Hill office. “I think, having been through everything I’ve been through and knowing these races, I’m stronger today than at any other time I’ve had leadership races.”
Trump’s unpopularity and turbulent leadership style has damaged the GOP’s standing nationwide, especially in suburban areas, making for a difficult political landscape for House Republicans. Despite GOP gains in fundraising, including the online portal WinRed, Republicans are still badly trailing their Democratic counterparts money-wise.
And the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and slumping U.S. economy further cloud the outlook for Republicans. While Democrats aren’t expected to control the same number of seats as they did in 2009 — when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi could count on 258 Democratic votes at the party’s high point during the 111th Congress — it is likely to be larger than what she has today.
Yet it appears that McCarthy has all but locked down the votes to remain House GOP leader no matter what happens on Election Day, according to interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers from across the conference.
McCarthy, whom Trump fondly calls “My Kevin,” was unapologetic about aligning himself — and the House Republican Conference — so closely with the president. In fact, McCarthy argued that his ties to Trump are an asset, not a liability, despite the fact that the backlash against the president ended their majority in 2018 and threatens to do more damage on Nov. 3.
The McCarthy-Trump relationship has been a major source of frustration in some corners of the conference. Yet McCarthy’s strong support for Trump — by personal inclination and political necessity — puts him in step with the vast majority of House Republicans
McCarthy also said he deserves to remain minority leader due to his successes at fundraising, recruiting and rallying the party together the last two years. McCarthy was elected GOP leader in the wake of former Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) retirement and the Democratic wave of 2018, which ended an eight-year Republican majority in the House.
“If you think we lose seats, it’s based upon my job as minority leader, I don’t think that’s the case,” McCarthy added. “Let's sit back and say, just like anybody running for office, ‘What did you promise you would do?’ and ‘What did you achieve?’”
'I see Kevin as safe'
The lack of a potential challenger doesn’t mean his colleagues inside the House Republican Conference don’t criticize him. McCarthy’s failure to move aggressively against supporters of the dangerous QAnon conspiracy movement running in Republican primaries — especially his handling of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s candidacy in Georgia — has upset members.
“There’s a role there for leadership to stand up for the group and say, ‘This a problem,’” said Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), who was ousted by a right-wing primary challenger and has been one of the most outspoken GOP critics of QAnon. But, he conceded, “Kevin was in an impossible situation.”
And there will almost certainly be a serious reckoning within the GOP over the future of the party if Republicans lose the White House and Senate and fall further into the House minority.
Some lawmakers are pushing to delay the party’s internal leadership elections until December in order to give the conference more time to process the results from election night, according to a House Republican aide — a scenario that could benefit any potential challengers. But McCarthy and other senior leaders are unlikely to allow such a move.
The prospect of actually pushing out McCarthy would be a long shot, and at this point, it’s unclear who would be willing to take him on.
“I see Kevin as safe. I also believe he already has the votes locked up to be reelected leader regardless of the outcome of the election,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a well-respected figure inside the conference. “Scalise as whip, McCarthy as leader, they’re both in a strong position to be reelected without challenge.”
“Kevin has done a tremendous job leading our conference with the messaging, giving us an agenda to run on, really pulling the team together in a way that I haven’t seen since I’ve been in Congress,” added Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). “He has earned the right to be our leader no matter what happens in this election.”
Scalise focusing on November
Scalise has also hugged Trump just as tightly as McCarthy. That makes it hard for Scalise to argue that he would have done anything substantively different than McCarthy, thus giving GOP rank-and-file members less reason to supplant the California Republican with his No. 2.
Still, Scalise is a strong fundraiser, a very disciplined messenger and retains enormous goodwill inside the conference after surviving a June 2017 shooting during a congressional baseball practice.
But a potential challenge to McCarthy can’t be totally ruled out if Republicans lose 15 seats or more on Election Day — a worst case scenario for the party.
In a statement, Scalise said he was focused on the November election and wouldn’t discuss internal jockeying for GOP leadership post-Nov. 3.
“[M]y sole focus these last few weeks is hitting as many districts as I can to help share our message alongside our great members and candidates, with 44 more planned events between now and Election Day, as well as ensuring they have the financial resources they need to make it over the finish line,” Scalise said in a statement.
To win over Jordan, who challenged McCarthy for minority leader in 2018, McCarthy helped him secure the ranking member position on the high-profile Judiciary and Oversight committees. McCarthy also temporarily moved Jordan to the House Intelligence Committee for the Trump impeachment hearings, a coveted role for one of the president’s fiercest allies.
“We’ve worked well together,” Jordan said during an interview. “He has done such a good job keeping us united, particularly during impeachment, and supporting the president. I think the conference has been very pleased.”
Other leadership posts
And Cheney, another would-be McCarthy successor who has challenged Trump repeatedly, is looking less threatening to the California Republican as well.
Cheney’s reputation has taken a hit within the right wing of the Republican Conference following her outspoken criticism of Trump. Cheney, the only woman in House GOP leadership, knocked the president for tweeting conspiracy theories in the middle of the pandemic, encouraged mask wearing and defended Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist.
“We need serious competent leadership to address these issues and that means we need a new speaker of the House,” Cheney said in a statement. “I’m focused on working with our members and candidates across the country to win seats so we can prevent the destruction of ongoing Democrat leadership in Congress.”
And Cheney's allies say there's no way she would be ousted from leadership.
“I don’t for a minute believe she’s vulnerable in her position,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who’s running unopposed to become the next chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
But Cheney’s failed effort to target Rep. Thomas Massie (R-K.Y.) in a primary also rubbed some GOP lawmakers the wrong way, leading to an internal blow-up earlier this summer that weakened her standing with some conservatives.
There are even discussions underway about recruiting a challenger to Cheney, according to two GOP sources familiar with the situation. No Republican, however, has come forward to announce they will take on Cheney.
But even some of Cheney’s detractors acknowledge the optics of pushing out the highest ranking woman in Republican leadership — especially after what is expected to be another tough year for the GOP when it comes to female voters — unless the challenger is another woman.
One name that has been repeatedly floated for a post somewhere in leadership, whether it’s conference chair or NRCC chair, is Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who built a national profile — and padded her campaign war chest — during the Trump impeachment proceedings.
At the very least, though, some lawmakers say Cheney has damaged her chances of moving up the leadership ladder and mounting a challenge to McCarthy or even Scalise.
“If you consistently put yourself at odds with the president going into an election, a lot of people had a lot of heartburn with that,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus. “Liz was building a pretty good resume of bashing the president.”
“I’ve heard of a number of people who were and are less confident in Liz Cheney,” he added.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, think Emmer could bear the blame for a bad cycle, should he decide to run again for NRCC chair. The last chair, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, stepped down after Republicans lost the majority in 2018.
But Emmer still maintains the confidence of McCarthy, who has the most sway over who runs the campaign arm. Emmer, who has mirrored Trump’s combative style and bombastic rhetoric, has shown no sign he plans to step down from the NRCC even if Republicans perform poorly at the polls.
“All of my efforts are focused on Election Day and maximizing the outcome for my conference,” Emmer said in a statement. “Leadership elections are the last thing on my mind right now.”