How Kevin McCarthy may have doomed his bid for House speaker

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
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For the first time since 1923, the U.S. House of Representatives failed Tuesday to elect a new speaker on the initial ballot, signaling the start of what could be a fractious, days-long drama to find a Republican successor to former Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

But for Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Calif. — the Republican leader who was also denied the gavel on Tuesday’s second and third ballots by a rebellious clique from the right wing of his caucus — it was, in a way, the story of his life.

It’s not just that far-right conservatives had blocked McCarthy the last time he was on the cusp of becoming speaker, in 2015, after he appeared on Fox News and effectively admitted that the House probe into the 2013 Benghazi terror attack had a political motive.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies in 2013 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the attacks against the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” he said. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”

McCarthy unexpectedly withdrew from the speaker’s race a few days later. “If we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face,” he said. “I am not that guy.”

It’s also that the very quality that propelled the affable Californian this far — keeping tabs on what his members want and bending over backward to give it to them — has been put to its biggest test yet.

In the end, he could find that his trademark malleability has reached its limit.

The son of Democrats, McCarthy has spent his entire professional life in politics (with the exception of a brief stint in his early 20s when he used $5,000 in lottery winnings to open a sandwich counter in his uncle’s frozen yogurt shop). While still in college, he offered to work free of charge for GOP Rep. Bill Thomas, then spent the next 15 years on Thomas’s staff.

Kevin McCarthy, left
Then-California State Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in 2004. (Steve Yeater/AP)

After chairing both the California and national Young Republicans, McCarthy won a seat in the state Assembly in 2002, then succeeded the retiring Thomas in the U.S. House four years later.

Unlike former GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, his fellow self-proclaimed “young gun” and eventual replacement in the 2015 speaker vote, McCarthy has not devoted himself to ideological purity or policy manifestos. By most accounts, he’s a traditional pro-business conservative at heart.

Instead, McCarthy has focused on schmoozing his way up the GOP ranks. By 2010, he was House majority whip; by 2014, he was House majority leader. At the time he mounted that first bid for speaker following John Boehner’s resignation in 2015, he would have been the least experienced congressman to hold the position since 1891.

The speed and single-mindedness of McCarthy’s ascent is key to understanding how he has confronted the challenge to his bid for speaker — and how he will continue to confront it in the coming hours and possibly days.

The math, at least, is clear: After a disappointing midterm performance, there are just 222 Republicans in the House. That’s enough for a slim GOP majority, but it means McCarthy can survive only a handful of Republicans voting another way. He needs 218 votes, and on Tuesday's ballots, at least, he did not have them.

Members of the House of Representatives participate in the vote for speaker
Members of the House of Representatives participate in the vote for speaker on Tuesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Trying to rally support ahead of Tuesday’s vote, McCarthy released a 55-page list of concessions he has already made to his GOP critics after weeks of down-to-the-wire negotiations — including lowering the threshold so that just five rank-and-file members of the House majority could force a vote of no confidence in their leader whenever they feel the need.

On Tuesday a defiant McCarthy announced that negotiations were over — “I earned this job!” he shouted during a closed-door GOP huddle — but it’s hard to see how his push for speaker survives the week unless he gives even more.

It’s a familiar position for McCarthy, who got to where he is in large part because of what one observer has called his “incredible emotional IQ.” He’s obsessed with knowing his colleagues’ desires — more than $100 million in fundraising help since 2016; an open door for advice on strategy; a leader who remembers the names of their spouses, children and grandchildren and how many percentage points they won their last election by — and will often tie himself in knots to satisfy them.

As one Wisconsin Republican told New York magazine: “There’s a carrot-and-a-stick approach. And Kevin has the carrot approach.”

Donald Trump with Kevin McCarthy.

Nowhere is this dynamic clearer than in McCarthy’s dizzying relationship with former President Donald Trump. Deep down, the Californian has signaled at times that he’s not quite a true believer in Trump’s brand of Republican politics. A month before Trump clinched the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, McCarthy privately told his fellow GOP leaders that “I think [Vladimir] Putin pays” him. (McCarthy’s spokesman dismissed the remark as “a failed attempt at humor.”)

A few days after Trump triggered the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, McCarthy told another small gathering of Republican lawmakers, “I’ve had it with this guy. What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that, and nobody should defend it.”

Yet McCarthy has also publicly prostrated himself before the former president again and again.

During the 2016 campaign, he initiated late-night phone calls with the candidate to offer advice and keep him abreast of the latest news from Congress. Flattered, Trump started to call him “my Kevin” (and considered appointing him White House chief of staff). In 2017, McCarthy ordered a staffer to pluck all the reds and pinks out of a large pile of Starbursts candies so he could give Trump a jar filled with only his two favorite flavors.

Rep. Liz Cheney
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Shortly after McCarthy’s “I’ve had it with this guy” remark surfaced in the New York Times, he rushed to Trump's resort Mar-a-Lago, walked back his condemnations, fought the creation of a bipartisan Jan. 6 inquiry and ultimately led the effort to purge his deputy, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, from her House leadership post for continuing to speak out against Trump.

“I think it’s all a big compliment, frankly,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal at the time, referring to McCarthy and other Republicans who criticized him at first but ultimately relented. “They realized they were wrong and supported me.”

Now, however, it is not a single (easily flattered) figure whom McCarthy has to placate; it’s nearly 20 rank-and-file Republicans with various motives and incentives — many of whom insist that McCarthy’s people-pleasing MO is precisely what makes it a “struggle” to “trust” him, as Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz put it Tuesday.

“If you want to drain the swamp you can’t put the biggest alligator in charge of the exercise,” Gaetz explained. “I am a Florida man and I know of what I speak.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz
Rep. Matt Gaetz speaking to colleagues in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Gaetz continued to criticize McCarthy on the House floor on Tuesday. “Maybe the right person isn’t someone who hasn’t sold shares of himself to get it,” Gaetz said as he rose to nominate as an alternative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founding member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus and a McCarthy ally.

On the second ballot, Jordan won all 19 anti-McCarthy GOP votes — yet he had urged his colleagues to back McCarthy instead.

“We need to rally around him and come together,” Jordan said.