Why the House speaker's race just got nasty

Story highlights

  • Rep. Jason Chaffetz announced a long-shot campaign for House Speaker on Sunday, asserting that more than 50 house Republicans won't back Rep. Kevin McCarthy
  • McCarthy's suggestion the House Benghazi investigation was driven by politics has made House Republicans ask if he can handle the job
  • Congressional Republicans have failed to put together a unified agenda challenging President Barack Obama

Washington (CNN)The race for Speaker could turn the House floor into complete chaos later this month, prompting an ugly public fight and further roiling a Republican Party struggling to present a governing vision for the country.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced a long-shot campaign for the post on Sunday, asserting that more than 50 house Republicans won't back the current frontrunner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, to replace retiring Speaker John Boehner later this month.
McCarthy can't afford to lose more than 29 Republicans; if he does, he won't get the 218 votes needed on the House floor, giving Chaffetz an opening to position himself as a unity candidate. If neither man surpasses 218 votes, it could throw the full House into a state of deep uncertainty -- just as Congress has to deal with major national issues, including the possibility of the first-ever default on the national debt.
    Boehner said he was stepping down in part to spare House Republicans from the pain and distraction of addressing a challenge to his speakership. But McCarthy's front-runner status means the race is essentially set up as a proxy vote on Boehner's tenure, which has been marked by ongoing fights with conservatives who feel the leadership hasn't taken a hard enough line against President Barack Obama and Democrats.
    "You don't just give automatic promotion to the existing leadership team," Chaffetz said on "Fox News Sunday." "That doesn't signal change. I think they want a fresh face and a fresh, new person who's actually there at the leadership table in the Speaker's role."
    When he made his campaign official on Sunday, Chaffetz insisted he was being recruited by fellow Republicans and he wanted to "bridge the divide" inside the GOP conference. "He's been in existing leadership for years and years, and the strife and the divide is getting worse, it's not getting better," Chaffetz said of McCarthy.

    Benghazi comment puts McCarthy on the spot

    McCarthy's disastrous national interview on Fox last Wednesday, when he suggested the House's select committee investigating the 2012 Benghazi attack was driven by politics against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has also made Republicans on and off Capitol Hill wonder if he is really up to the task of being second in line to succeed the president of the United States.
    This is a critical moment for the GOP. With the House and Senate both under Republican control, they have failed to put together a unified agenda challenging Obama.
    In a column that was circulated among House Republicans on Friday, Peggy Noonan from the Wall Street Journal was brutal, writing: "Mr. McCarthy is well-liked in the House, a veteran said to be a natural lover of the nuts and bolts. But it will be surprising if some of his fellow Republicans don't start asking: "He's got the guts and the hunger, but does he have the brains?"
    Sunday, Chaffetz argued in letter to his Republican colleagues that the party needs to communicate its vision clearly -- and that he's the candidate who can do that. He made a similar case speaking to reporters after his Sunday show appearance.
    "Look, I want to have a speaker who can actually speak and make the case to the American people," Chaffetz said.
    Others may also now feel they can be that messenger.
    Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Florida, was already in the speaker's race against McCarthy, but possible candidates who could launch bids for Speaker include Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jeb Hensarling of Texas, according to a senior House GOP source. Both initially ruled out running last month, before McCarthy's candidacy weakened.
    House Budget Chairman Tom Price, who is currently running for McCarthy's current post as majority leader could decide to instead run for speaker if he decides he could assemble more support for the top post. Price is seen as the underdog in the majority leader's race against Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana.

    What happens on the floor?

    McCarthy's ascent into the top leadership circle has been meteoric -- he was elected to the House in 2006, entered the GOP leadership team in 2009 and replaced his mentor, Rep. Eric Cantor, as majority leader when Cantor lost to a primary challenger last summer. His tireless work ethic and easygoing demeanor made him popular with his colleagues. When Boehner surprised everyone with the news he was stepping down McCarthy quickly locked down enough commitments from members to stave off any serious challenge.
    House Republicans are currently scheduled for a closed-door conference meeting Thursday to select their leadership winners. Although some Republicans are urging Boehner to postpone the races for the lower-level leadership positions, that would not delay the speakership vote.
    Officials close to McCarthy say they have more than 200 commitments so far -- he needs 125 members to win Thursday's vote -- but it's what happens afterwards that matters. Unlike the other party leadership positions, the full House must vote on the Speaker.
    On Sunday, Chaffetz said he would back whichever GOP candidate wins on Thursday-- but a big question facing Chaffetz is this: Will he try to help McCarthy secure the requisite 218 votes on the House floor - or stand in the way?
    McCarthy can't lose more than 29 GOP votes in a chamber where 25 Republicans already voted in opposition to Boehner earlier this year. If no one can get to that threshold, the scramble to find someone who can will showcase the fact that for now no one can govern the rambunctious conference.
    His public blunder started conversations among members that were below the surface.
    "I do think that it probably gives a reason for pause for some of our members and I think Kevin is going to have to address that with them," Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-South Carolina.
    Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, a supporter of McCarthy's, believed he would still win, but said on CNN following Chaffetz's announcement that "one or two" more House Republicans could decide to run for speaker.
    Chaffetz himself began making calls to members on Friday -- even though he told CNN late last week he was still "very supportive" of McCarthy.

    Paul Ryan backs McCarthy

    Many Republicans wanted Rep Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, who chairs the powerful tax writing panel, to consider running for Speaker when Boehner stepped down, but in an op-ed posted on Sunday, Ryan reiterated his support for McCarthy.
    "Kevin's record in Congress demonstrates a rare combination of principle, leadership, and effectiveness. I have no doubt that his experience and skills make him the best choice for speaker," Ryan wrote on Townhall.com.
    McCarthy supporter Rep Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, downplayed the controversy over the Benghazi comments, saying on ABC Sunday, it was a 'tempest in a teapot" and wouldn't ultimately affect the outcome of the leadership race.
    McCarthy knew his comments about Benghazi started a wave of concerns, and returned to Fox News late last week to clean up, saying he "did not intend to imply in any way that the work is political."

    Chaffetz no sure thing

    A Tuesday night candidate forum hosted by the House Freedom Caucus and several other conservative groups will be a critical test for both McCarthy and Chaffetz.
    Sources in the Freedom Caucus said Sunday that Chaffetz will have to explain his positions -- including his backing of an online sales tax position and his decision to punish a conservative North Carolina Republican, Mark Meadows, by stripping him of a subcommittee gavel on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Chaffetz chairs. (Meadows was later reinstated to the post.)
    On "Fox News Sunday," Chaffetz began to address some of those concerns -- and promised a more inclusive style of leadership.
    "I think I learned from that lesson -- that you're not going to do things by cutting people off at the knees," Chaffetz said Sunday of the Meadows decision. "I think I was a good leader and that I listened ... and reconsidered that decision."
    Both men are trying to show they'd be different than Boehner.
    Perhaps mindful of the criticism of Boehner -- that he wasn't willing to be more combative -- McCarthy's media rounds, especially with a conservative favorite like Sean Hannity, might help ease those concerns that his speakership would just be more of the same. But his gaffe on Fox News gave the same crowd who wanted their new speaker to show more fight a more competitive race of his own.
    They certainly have that a competitive race now.
    Rep. Adam Kinzinger told CNN, he was worried about the constant internal drama from a group of fellow Republicans he dubbed "trouble makers." A McCarthy supporter, he added, "it's time for us as a party to come together and realistically determine what we can and what we can't do, and not put expectations too high."