Inside Kevin McCarthy’s math problem to becoming Speaker

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the vote count for Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) nomination in 2019.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has a math problem. 

He won the House GOP’s nomination to be Speaker this week in a 188-31 vote. 

But far more GOP members voted against him than he can afford to lose on the floor Jan. 3 in a vote that would officially elect him Speaker. A vocal faction of Republicans who have the potential to make or break his Speakership continue to withhold support. 

Recent 2022 election projections put Republicans on track to win up to 222 seats, a much slimmer majority than they were expecting before Election Day. Just a handful of Republican defectors could sink McCarthy. 

“The hard thing for Kevin, realistically, is there are a fair number of people who have said very publicly they're ‘Never Kevin.’ Like, there's nothing that Kevin can do to get their vote,” said Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio), who declined to share his own thinking on McCarthy.   

Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the former chair of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus who challenged McCarthy for the Speaker nomination, have outright pledged not to vote for McCarthy on the House floor. 

But other critics of McCarthy aren’t going quite that far.  

The questions are, how many skeptics can he sway to his side? What do they want in return? And, who could the alternative be? 

McCarthy has projected confidence that he will win the votes he needs by January. He noted that former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was nominated 200-43 in 2015 before winning 236 votes the next day on the floor, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was nominated 203-32 before winning 220 on the House floor in 2019. Both Pelosi and Ryan, however, had more substantial majorities. 

“Look, we have our work cut out for us. We've got to have a small majority. We've got to listen to everybody in our conference,” McCarthy said in a press conference after clinching the closed-door nomination.  

His supporters also note that some who voted against McCarthy via secret ballot will not want to be on the record publicly opposing him in January. But skeptics are pushing back. 

“The Leader does not have 218 votes,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), the current chair of the Freedom Caucus. “It is becoming increasingly perilous as we move forward.” 

The magic number 

McCarthy does not necessarily need 218 floor votes to win the Speakership, however. It is a technical point that may affect his road to the gavel with such a narrow margin. 

A House Speaker needs to win a majority of votes of those casting a ballot for a candidate. That means unforeseen circumstances on everything from the coronavirus pandemic to the weather can make the difference.  

Pelosi won the Speakership last year with 216 votes, due to vacancies and absences. Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also won the Speakership with just 216 votes in 2015, when 25 members did not vote. Snowy weather kept some members away, and many Democrats were attending a funeral for the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D). 

A Congressional Research Service report also notes that “present” votes also lower the final number needed to win, with current House practice dictating that the Speaker needs to win a majority “voting by surname.”  

Some House Republicans, then, could opt to vote “present” rather than for either McCarthy or an alternative candidate without jeopardizing McCarthy’s path to the gavel. 

But there is no guarantee that members opposed to McCarthy will give him that leeway. Gaetz has said he will vote for someone else in January. 

Demands for rules and vision 

The House Freedom Caucus over the summer released a list of rule change demands for both the House GOP Conference and the House as a whole that aim to reduce the power of leadership and distribute more of it to individual members. 

“I refuse to elect the same people utilizing the same rules that keep us from – members like me from participating,” Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) said on former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon’s “War Room” show. 

House Republicans began considering changes to their internal rules last week, and in a response to the push to decentralize power, McCarthy said after the meeting that the conference increased the number of representative regions from 13 to 19. The move affects the power in the House GOP steering committee, the body of members that control committee assignments and chairmanships. 

“The regional maps we just did, pushing the power further down to more regions, more to the conference itself,” McCarthy said, which “dilutes the power greater to the members” on the steering committee. 

The House GOP also passed an amendment from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) that prohibits members of the House Republican Conference steering committee from sitting on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s executive committee — with an exception for elected members of the House GOP conference. 

But other proposals from Freedom Caucus members were shot down, and some did not leave the session happy. 

“I was disappointed about how the rules meeting was conducted,” Perry said, adding that other members and representatives-elect were “aghast at how that meeting was conducted and the product that came out of it.” 

“Unless something changes, they should get used to that, because the tenor of that meeting was exactly what I've experienced throughout my time in Congress,” Perry added. 

And for some members still withholding support from McCarthy, the rules are not the only factor in their decision. 

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said he wants commitments on a federal budget. Biggs has expressed disappointment that McCarthy will not commit to impeachment proceedings against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Others stress the need for strong leadership and vision without offering many specifics. 

If not McCarthy, then who? 

As the saying goes in politics, you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and those opposed to McCarthy lack a viable alternative. 

Biggs imagines that by Jan. 3, there will be more of a consensus candidate, and that it might not be him. 

“I can think of probably 20 people who nobody's mad at ever,” Biggs said, throwing out Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) as a suggestion. “I don't think people get mad at him too often.” 

Johnson was reelected to be vice chair of the House GOP and has shown no interest in being an alternative Speaker candidate. 

Some conservatives have suggested Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a founding Freedom Caucus member who challenged McCarthy for GOP Leader in 2018. But Jordan, who is likely to chair the House Judiciary Committee, has thrown his support behind McCarthy. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), once a doubter of McCarthy’s ability to become Speaker, has become one of his most vocal supporters for the post.  

She has warned that moderate Republicans could join Democrats and elect a compromise moderate Speaker. McCarthy skeptics have dismissed that prospect as a “red herring.” McCarthy has also said he will not seek Democratic votes to be Speaker. 

Greene said she would lobby her right-wing colleagues to support McCarthy, and on Friday, she said that the number of members not supporting McCarthy are “going down some, which is a good sign.” 

“I really feel like our conference needs to be unified. We need to support Kevin McCarthy and we need to lead in such a way that we show the American people that the Republicans have their act together,” Greene said. 

--Updated at 8:06 a.m.