As Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy frantically worked the phones and met behind closed doors to overcome growing opposition by the small-but influential Freedom Caucus, the writing on the wall became too large to ignore. Just two weeks after Speaker John Boehner surprised Capitol Hill by announcing his resignation, McCarthy delivered his own shocking news by announcing that he will not seek the Speaker’s chair, breaking wide open the race for the top post in the House and delaying elections.
Over the past few days, pressure mounted for an alternative to the majority leader after a public flub over the Benghazi investigation, which prompted backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike for suggesting that the investigation was political in nature. And while he has been pitching himself as someone who can unite the conservative and establishment Republican factions in the House to counter Obama’s agenda in the remaining two years.
“We’ve been going through this campaign talking to a lot of members,” McCarthy said in a press conference after announcing his decision, “but the one thing I said is to earn this (position) is service.”
He also said he will stay on as Majority Leader.
The decision came just hours before the Republican caucus was to vote on their nominee for Speaker of the House, a vote that is scheduled for the end of the month by the chamber as a whole with the GOP pick pitted against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California). That vote has now been postponed as those who already backed McCarthy are now released to find someone new.
“We should find a fresh face,” McCarthy said without naming any names or mentioning the two other members who are already in the running – Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Daniel Webster (R-Florida). Webster had the backing of the 40-member strong Freedom Caucus going into Thursday’s scheduled vote. While not enough to throw Webster’s election by the caucus, it was enough to make Pelosi the next Speaker of the House if they stuck to their guns in late October.
Reaction has ranged from praise to respect and shock for McCarthy’s decision, with presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeting that it was a good move – and insinuating the Majority Leader wasn’t smart enough for the job.
Great, Kevin McCarthy drops out of SPEAKER race. We need a really smart and really tough person to take over this very important job!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2015
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) expressed disappointment with the decision. Speculation immediately went to the Ways and Means chair as taking over the establishment choice for the top spot, one that he quickly dismissed in a statement.
“While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate,” Ryan said.
While appearing on CNN right after the news broke as a stop for his presidential campaign, Ben Carson expressed respect for the decision
“Kudos to Rep. McCarthy for putting others ahead of himself,” Carson said.
Throughout the past couple of weeks, calls from third-party groups have gone out in congressional district throughout the country against McCarthy, signs the internal race had become part of the external battle for control of the Republican Party overall.
“Let’s put the conference first,” McCarthy said in reference to the calls and the whipping for the speakership, suggesting his action will help unite the party as they face a debt ceiling that will be hit as early as November 5, a budget that needs to be passed by December and another full year of Obama’s agenda.
Prior to Thursday’s decision, the majority leader had 125 known votes to win the Republican nomination. Around 200 congressman had privately backed him for the Speaker’s job. And during his press conference after announcing the decision, McCarthy alluded to having 224 votes for Speaker for the October 29 vote, implying 23 Republican members have already said they will not vote for him as Speaker against Pelosi.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) expressed dismay at the chances of the other two candidates running for speaker, insinuating someone new may be needed.
“I don’t believe there was any candidate today who could get to 218,” he said in a press conference shortly after the announcement.
Public pressure from outside groups and remarks over Benghazi have sunk McCarthy’s chance to replace Boehner.
“Do you want to go home and tell your constituents that you voted for Boehner’s right hand man?” said Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie. “It’s easier to do that in a private secret ballot behind closed doors than it is in public.”
“I have 18 town hall meetings over a period of a week,” said Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold, prior to McCarthy’s announcement. “Kevin is going to have to do a good job on radio and television and wherever he is to convince the folks that I’m going to be hearing from if I’m going to be behind him.”
With uncertainty behind when the caucus will vote, Boehner released a statement reiterating his retirement intentions, though without a firm date.