House meltdown: agony and ecstasy for 2016 contenders

Updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri October 9, 2015
02:30 - Source: CNN
Kevin McCarthy: I feel good about decision to drop out

Story highlights

Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina account for about half of likely Republican voters' support

Mike Huckabee sent fundraising letter following McCarthy's announcement

Washington CNN —  

The Republican establishment just lost the first primary of the 2016 election season.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to ascend to speaker of the House was the first real test of whether the prevailing mood of the GOP electorate – which is so disgusted with the status quo that political newcomers now lead its polls – could upend Washington’s conventional wisdom that an insider always ultimately wins.

Consider it upended.

Hardline conservatives’ agitation for an outsider left McCarthy with little hope of unifying his party – so he dropped out. It was a victory for the far right, and also a signal: The strength of the Republican insurgency is growing.

RELATED: Kevin McCarthy drops out of House speaker race

The potency of outsiders has been evident for months on the campaign trail, where three people who have never held political office – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – now account for about half of likely Republican voters’ support.

No votes that count have been cast in the 2016 presidential nominating process. But already, two experienced political hands – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry – have dropped out of the race. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has struggled to gain enough traction to escape the single digits in GOP polls. And Trump, the front-runner, seems to gain steam every time he insults the party’s previous nominees, like John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Their rise reflects in part a Republican electorate frustrated with Washington, where House and Senate GOP leaders have given up causes like defunding Planned Parenthood knowing that with Obama still in office and wielding the veto pen, they’d otherwise risk blowing deadlines to fund the government and grind Congress to a halt.

The outsiders’ traction has been evident in polls for months. NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist surveys of the early-voting states found Trump, Carson and Fiorina at a combined 51% in Iowa and 47% in New Hampshire – figures that have remained consistent even as those three have made their own moves up and down the polls.

Trump and other GOP presidential candidates rushed to claim their share of the victory.

“They’re giving me a lot of credit for that,” Trump told a crowd Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas.

“I said you really need someone very, very, tough and very smart,” he said – an implication that McCarthy, like retiring House Speaker John Boehner, is part of a leadership team that hasn’t stood its ground against President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats.

RELATED: Donald Trump takes credit for Kevin McCarthy dropping out

On the trail, it’s everyone against Washington

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – who has pushed for government shutdowns before – said the House’s current leaders might as well be members of a different party.

Just two weeks ago, Cruz drew an enormous applause by announcing word of Boehner’s resignation to the Values Voter Summit in Washington.

“I hope the next speaker will listen to the voters, and stop behaving like an arm of the Democratic Party,” Cruz told Boston radio host Jeff Kuhner about three hours after McCarthy’s announcement.

RELATED: Conservatives celebrate Kevin McCarthy shocker

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called McCarthy’s defeat a victory for conservatives over the Republican lobbyist and donor classes.

“It’s about burning the corrupt Washington political machine to the ground and rebuilding our country so America can win again,” Huckabee said in a statement.

He followed up later with a fundraising solicitation, promising to burn the city down.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took his own turn trashing Washington, saying that whether it’s McCarthy or somebody else, he doesn’t care, and “real people” don’t either.

“It’s so dysfunctional and so ugly down there that it didn’t matter to me who the speaker was,” he told reporters after a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire.

For his part, Bush extended an olive branch to the House Freedom Caucus – which endorsed a McCarthy opponent, Florida Rep. Daniel Webster – by noting that the two are long-time friends.

“I just hope that they stay focused on making sure that people know they’re trying to solve problems for people,” Bush said.