Control of the House could get complicated for Kevin McCarthy without the GOP wave

Control of the House could get complicated for Kevin McCarthy without the GOP wave


In the hours before the polls closed Tuesday, Republicans saw Most in the house firmly within their reach.

Leaders have prepared a flurry of press releases outlining their Day 1 priorities, which are expected to be delivered around the same time that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declares victory on the back of “Take Back the House” before the clock strikes midnight at the DC hotel.

Instead, McCarthy took the stage Wednesday morning hours later than expected, as Democrats held on to a small but not insignificant number of seats, halting Republican celebrations.

“When you wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority and Nancy Pelosi will be in the minority,” McCarthy said in a four-minute speech shortly after 2 a.m.

Almost a full day later, that prediction has yet to come true. The House majority remains unknown as of Wednesday night as a number of races remain close in districts that Republicans believed they would easily win.

House Republicans, of course, are still expected to win a majority. But some are distraught over what appears to be a razor-thin victory as they look down on what many privately say is the impossible task of governing an ideologically fractious conference by thin margins.

At the center of that fierce act is McCarthy, who has methodically plotted his way to a governing majority over the past four years as minority leader. Although his calculations likely did not reduce his chances of becoming Speaker of the House, the expected narrow margin of victory complicated his path. Far-right members of the conference are considering how to use the narrow majority to their advantage, while more centrist members worry that they will be held hostage by fringe ideas that lead to government failure and that demands for concessions from McCarthy will only grow.

“We have to figure out how to come together and work on this party,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said on Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” show Wednesday. “Going forward, I will try my best to do it because I have a clear vision for it. But it will require a lot of people doing the hard work.”

A thinner majority could plague Republicans in the same way that House Democrats spent last term juggling a five-seat majority, encouraging members to make demands and delay legislation on a whim.

Candidates who made history in the midterm elections

Allies say the goodwill McCarthy has cultivated among ideological factions within the GOP conference will help consolidate the 218 votes needed to declare him president in January. But an expected slim majority is likely to force him to make concessions on policy and other aspects of governance, according to more than 20 Republican lawmakers, strategists and aides spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

“Kevin McCarthy has worked incredibly hard and he and [Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.)] traveled this country, united the conference in politics… [and] recruited incredibly qualified candidates,” retiring Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said Wednesday. “Leader McCarthy has the vision and I think he is capable of uniting this new conference moving forward in the majority.”

It looks like an uneven conference will rule

Polls in the final days before the election still showed Republicans winning among voters who said the economy was their top issue. Republican lawmakers, aides and strategists, in turn, preemptively led a victory lap, touting McCarthy’s political instincts and recruiting success as the key to the “red tsunami” in the House.

But with the tsunami gone before it hit the coast, some Republicans are questioning McCarthy’s strategy and wondering whether the results will force him to refocus — and recalibrate who he listens to.

The House Republican, who won re-election on Tuesday, said the margin of victory was a mandate for McCarthy to finally silence the election denialism and baseless claims embraced by far-right candidates and lawmakers at the House GOP conference.

“Last night was shameful,” said the MP. “We have the worst president since Jimmy Carter, the highest inflation in 40 years, and we don’t know if we won a majority when we woke up this morning? It’s embarrassing and humiliating and says a lot about the conference… There should have been a historic red tide, but instead it was a tidal wave.”

The lawmaker specifically pointed to the party’s embrace of Greene, former President Donald Trump and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who are on the far right of the party, as a miscalculation. Some have pointed to Boebert’s surprisingly close race as a sign that voters in some parts of the country are rebuking ideology in safe seats, let alone throwing districts they favor reject the extremes.

That perspective was echoed by several Republican aides in the House of Representatives, who acknowledge that the expected slim majority could damage the relationships conservatives have cultivated to legislate and govern. While there are a few pieces of legislation that Republicans will be able to pass quickly — like ending money for the IRS in the Inflation Reduction Act, passing the Parental Rights Act and expanding drilling to produce more energy in the United States — those in charge of policymaking worry that tight margins will make it impossible to actually reach agreement on positions where Republicans have intense disputes, such as immigration, government funding and raising the debt limit.

That’s the outcome Republicans tried to avoid after watching the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus hold sway over the presidencies of John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).

No. 2 behind Boehner and Ryan, McCarthy embraced the Freedom Caucus after founding member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) challenged him for minority leader in 2018. Instead of sidelining the group, McCarthy nurtured a relationship with Jordan and brought the group to the decision-making table.

That has kept the Freedom Caucus largely at bay over the years, though it hasn’t stopped them from making demands. The results from the midterms are likely to encourage the caucus to “demand aggressive reforms to return the House to the American people and make it work again,” according to a memo distributed by the group last month.

How the Democrats kept the big losses and other benefits from the midterm elections

To help his bid for the presidency, McCarthy promised to return commissions to Greene and Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), to add more members to the influential steering committee and appoint members of the Freedom Caucus to their preferred legislative committees.

Still, Freedom Caucus members may be emboldened to demand that McCarthy reinstate the “request to vacate the chair” rule, which allows any member to file a motion to remove a speaker at any time. It’s the kiss of death that doomed Boehner and Ryan.

Leadership aides have said in recent months that the Freedom Caucus is unlikely to make such a request, especially if the group’s numbers shrink. But members of the Freedom Club predicted before the election that if their ranks were to expand, they would could have had much more impact than either of them had previously imagined.

So far, a handful staunch MAGA allies have won seats in the new majority, and it is unclear how many of the more pragmatic members McCarthy recruited to help build his governing majority will win.

“It’s going to be contentious,” said one GOP strategist who has been involved in House races. “He’s going to have the same problems that Pelosi has — there’s going to be a small group of extremists who are going to band together and make it brutal for him.”

While the Freedom Caucus may have more traction, many GOP members and senior aides acknowledged it can only go so far. There is no consensus leader who mobilizes the membership in a similar way that Jordan was supposed to disrupt Boehner and Ryan. Jordan remains loyal to McCarthy and has publicly reiterated his support for his former nemesis to become speaker.

What’s more, McCarthy can claim he’s still the one who won back the majority, visiting 39 states since August and raising $500 million through his affiliate campaign and political action committee recruitment.

“If you’re the minority leader on election day and you win the majority, [you’re] he will probably be the speaker,” McCarthy said at a leadership seminar in March. “They’re not going to change coaches between the playoffs and the Super Bowl. That doesn’t mean they won’t hold my feet to the fire.”

Holding the conference together will fall to McCarthy and whoever is elected to the majority, the person responsible for making sure members line up and vote the way the leadership leads.

Before the midterms, GOP leadership aides telegraphed that the majority would not seek bipartisan outcomes as they aimed to make life difficult for President Biden and Senate Democrats facing re-election in 2024. But in a stunning admission Wednesday, Rep. Tom Emmer (R- Minn. .), who chairs the National Republican Campaign Committee and has officially announced he’s running for the whip, told reporters he agreed with the lawmaker who told him the GOP majority would have to seek bipartisan consensus to pass legislation.

Several aides acknowledged privately that they would have to seek Democratic support on key issues, which Democratic leadership aides said would not be easily granted.

Some Republican strategists who spoke to The Washington Post on Wednesday were quick to throw Emmer under the bus, criticizing him for spending too much time preparing his campaign for the House whip and not enough on the overall Republican primary.

“I’m surprised Rep. Emmer thinks his path to the Republican whip is with Democratic support,” said David McIntosh, president of the conservative Caucus for Growth. “The quickest way for Republicans to return to the minority party would be to work with Democrats to pass the Biden agenda. I don’t recall seeing a single ad from the NRCC about working with Democrats.”

Some of the same strategists, who praised McCarthy for his recruiting efforts ahead of Election Day, criticized Emmer for not putting together a strong enough slate of candidates.

Others, however, noted that Emmer was a victim of his own success, leading the NRCC through a successful 2020 midterm election despite Trump’s loss. Emmer mentioned it himself in a press conference, saying the GOP won the “low-hanging fruit” last cycle.

But Emmer defends what he called a good night for Republicans. “We won places in two consecutive cycles. We are retaking the majority,” he said on Wednesday. “No one said this would be easy. We played in Biden territory and still managed to fire Nancy Pelosi for good.”

Next week’s leadership races are expected to witness this dynamic. While members are expected to vote behind closed doors for McCarthy, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) for majority leader and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) for conference chair, the race will test the conference’s ideological makeup.

Trump’s orbit continues to favor Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), while more moderate Republicans hope to stick with the tail. Drew Ferguson (R-La.), who serves as chief deputy whip.

What remains to be seen is whether McCarthy can manage the tensions between the Trump-friendly House Freedom Caucus and centrist Republicans, especially with Trump looming over the conference. The former president is expected to announce his political future as early as Tuesday, the same day as the GOP leadership election.

Some members are hoping leaders will take steps to crack down on Trump-flattering at the conference, which they believe may have cost them a larger majority.

“If he doesn’t put them in a corner with a stupid cap, we’re going to have a terrible time in the majority and who knows what 2024 will look like after that,” the GOP lawmaker said.

But others noted that if Republicans weren’t able to oust Trump after the January 6, 2021 coup, they’re unlikely to do so after a poor midterm showing.

“Trying to steal the party’s base from Trump is impossible. It’s really, really, impossible,” said a senior GOP aide. “Even if he is weakened and the leaders want to move away from him, the base and Trump will not allow that to happen.”

Tony Romm contributed to this report.

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