John Boehner's resignation has created a leadership void on Capitol Hill
Some Republicans worry they will miss an opportunity to win back the White House
Kevin McCarthy is front-runner to become speaker, but expect a challenge from conservatives
The tumult in the Republican Party – with a presidential race growing increasingly nasty, chaos engulfing the House GOP and a fall full of legislative crises – is fueling concern among party officials that they could blow their chance at 2016 if they don’t immediately right the ship.
Coming on the heels of Ben Carson’s criticism of Muslims, Donald Trump’s repudiation of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and a presidential race where personal insults are flying, the sudden resignation of House Speaker John Boehner is creating an unease the party establishment has not experienced in years.
“It’s tough enough to win elections by offending every demographic group that we can identify,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona “What we’ve seen in prior elections is, you could say until you’re blue in the face: ‘That’s not my view.’ But if the head of the ticket, or those running for the head of the ticket, are espousing that view – it hurts. It really does.”
The anxiety is a sharp departure from the heady days after the 2014 midterm elections, when GOP leaders promised they could govern effectively and present a compelling vision for the country. Despite the largest House Republican Conference since 1928 and an eight-seat Senate majority, Congress is just as divided and gridlocked as it was when the GOP only held the House and Democrats ruled the Senate.
Those differences will become more pronounced with new House leadership eager to take on President Barack Obama and their Senate counterparts, setting up high-profile fiscal showdowns over the debt limit and budget.
“This is a manage-by-crisis town,” said Sen. Steve Daines, a freshman Republican and former congressman from Montana. “We’ve got to get out of this cycle.”
Adding to the fear is the expectation that the already unwieldy GOP presidential race will continue to drag on well into 2016, showing an ugly side of the party to the American public, just as they have a chance to take over the White House.
“If people don’t think you are being respectful or they don’t think you particularly like them, they certainly are not going to be attracted to you or support you,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, referring to the Trump and Carson comments. “I think we need to be more careful and be respectful. If it starts becoming part of our brand or our party, then it hurts everybody.”
Still, Republican leaders argue their significant majority hasn’t been for naught, having passed sweeping trade legislation, changes to Medicare rules and an overhaul of surveillance laws. And some Republicans believe their prospects will improve if they can pull off an orderly succession to Boehner, and that the acrimony in the presidential race will eventually subside with the party uniting behind one candidate.
“The jockeying is early enough in the process that I don’t see a long term effect,” said Sen. John Thune, No. 3 in GOP leadership. He quickly added: “Obviously, you don’t want to see our guys beating the heck out of each other.”
But after advancing a stopgap spending bill in the Senate Monday night, Republicans are only pushing the bigger ticket fights until later into the congressional year. It will grow harder to resolve sticky issues, including raising the debt ceiling and finding a long-term budget plan – particularly as conservatives in the House try to stiffen the spines of their newly elected leadership team, and those new leaders seek to prove their conservative bona fides.
The intraparty fighting is part of a long-running battle between conservative Tea Party groups and the GOP establishment, which have sparred since the 2010 elections over tactics and strategy. Tea Party lawmakers are hailing Boehner’s upcoming departure as one of their biggest achievements, saying the party leadership needs to adhere to their principles – not water down their conservative ideology.
“We need a new speaker who can stand up to the president,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican and member of the House Freedom Caucus. “I fully expect there will be more candidates who run for speaker.”
The debate will head behind closed doors Tuesday, as the House GOP Conference will meet for a special meeting to discuss the party’s future for the first time since Boehner stunned the political world Friday.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, is the leading contender to replace Boehner as speaker. Despite only serving eight years in the House, McCarthy has developed deep relationships across the ideological spectrum and has been working methodically to lock down support ahead of his bid.
But he still has to contend with a group of roughly 30 members in the House Freedom Caucus, which is calling on the conference to elect a rock-ribbed conservative and take its time before holding leadership elections. The group – which has been a persistent thorn in Boehner’s side as he’s tried to lead the divided House – has not formally endorsed a candidate yet for the position.
McCarthy so far only faces a nominal challenge from Rep. Daniel Webster, a Florida Republican who mustered just 12 votes when he challenged Boehner last year.
In his letter to his caucus Monday, McCarthy made clear that he would have the “courage to lead the fight for our conservative principles and make our case to the American people.”
Some conservatives hope that’s the case.
“We told people give us the Senate and things would be different,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-South Carolina, on “Fox News Sunday.” “We told them back in 2010, give us the House and things will be different. Things are not that different.”
“There is a reason the American people are fed up with Washington,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in an impassioned floor speech Monday evening. “There is a reason the American people are frustrated. The frustration is not simply mild or passing or ephemeral. It is volcanic.”
With backlash from the right growing, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, took to the floor Monday afternoon to defend his chamber against charges that it hasn’t fulfilled its promises to voters. He touted the work the GOP has accomplished and blamed gridlock squarely on Democrats for bottling up the chamber, a message echoed by his close allies.
“It takes two to tango,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee. “We’ve done our job.”
For Republicans, the concern comes as polls show voters growing increasingly critical of their leaders in Washington. And it comes as Republicans have to worry about a daunting Senate map in 2016, with 24 seats in cycle – compared to only 10 for Democrats.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who faces a tough reelection next year, said that the acrimony in his party actually could give “those of us who want to distinguish ourselves an opportunity to do so.” But, he added that some of the more incendiary comments espoused by his presidential candidates create a “brand issue” for Republicans.
“I would say to the candidates: Talk about the Democrats more,” Portman said. “And that would help me more, frankly, if they were talking more about the differences between the two parties rather than the intramural fight.”
Cornyn added: “We are going to nominate somebody or elect somebody who will be a respectful or inclusive person. Right now, it makes headlines but I don’t think it represents where Republican Party is or where it should go.”
CNN’s Deidre Walsh contributed to this report