Being “My Kevin” isn’t counting for much yet.
That’s because the ex-president’s use of the midterm elections as a stage for his voter fraud falsehoods alienated many voters and landed the Republican House leader with a tiny majority that has made his campaign for the top job such a squeaker.
McCarthy endured scorn and ridicule when he rushed to Mar-a-Lago days after the US Capitol insurrection two years ago to embrace Trump – living up to that “My Kevin” nickname coined by the former president.
More on the House speaker vote
The Faustian pact was clear – make up with the insurrectionist former commander in chief in exchange for Trump’s support of the speakership that McCarthy had long craved.
But the California Republican is having trouble collecting on his bet. While most House Republicans overwhelmingly want him as their leader, the holdouts stand between him and power.
In a chaotic, dysfunctional start to the new Congress, McCarthy risks humiliation Tuesday in a House speaker election unless he can convince a handful of extreme conservatives to drop their opposition to his candidacy.
But even Trump has been unable to convince the holdouts, including several of his most bombastic supporters, like Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Andy Biggs of Arizona, to get behind the California lawmaker and push him over the line.
“Even after the McCarthy Machine’s attempts to whip votes and smear my name for several weeks, McCarthy is still well short of the 218 threshold,” Biggs, who is making a longshot bid for speaker, tweeted on Monday evening that it was time for new GOP leadership.
Such is the hostility toward McCarthy from the radicals that even Trump loyalists like Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who back him for speaker, have failed to break the dam.
McCarthy’s struggle comes despite his repeated capitulations to the demands of the hardliners, including on a rule that makes it easier to topple a speaker, that may have already neutered his power even if he does manage to win the job.
As McCarthy worked to lock down votes Monday night, he rejected another offer made to him by the GOP hardliners vowing to block him, despite Trump urging him to accept it, a source familiar with the matter tells CNN’s Kaitlan Collins.
The irony of McCarthy’s plight
McCarthy’s plight is partly his own fault – since he spent years appeasing the kind of nihilistic right-wingers that may blow up his dreams of the speaker’s gavel.
But his difficulties also come with a large helping of irony. He’s only in such a tight spot because the incoming House GOP majority is so small and is thus offering leverage to critics who would be outnumbered in a larger Republican conference. And the main reason why the midterm election red wave didn’t materialize was because voters in many seats McCarthy expected to win balked at the election denialism and extremism represented by Trump.
And now, with Trumpism effectively returning to power in one half of the capitol, McCarthy can only afford to lose four votes and still win the speakership election. As of Monday, five Republicans were in a “Never Kevin” group refusing to vote for him. A further nine, including a number of high-profile Trump supporters, had said in a Sunday letter that some of McCarthy’s concessions were insufficient.
McCarthy is threatening he will take the race to multiple ballots – a spectacle not seen in a century – to grind his critics down. The veteran Californian representative, who has a reputation as a shrewd power player inside the GOP, is also helped by the lack of any viable alternative candidate.
But his plan still may not work.
“I think it’s possible he will not be the next speaker,” former Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania told CNN on Monday, outlining an extraordinary possible scenario that would not only mean a heartbreak for McCarthy but would show the new GOP majority is hostage to its zealots and augur a riotous two years ahead.
This is especially daunting since the House faces a set of looming crises in the new reality of divided government – including an expected standoff over raising the government’s borrowing authority that could send the United States into default if it is not elevated.
Such a politicized House could also spell new trouble for Republicans’ hopes of clinging to their majority in 2024 since their path to power lay not in deep-red Trump country, but through seats formerly held by Democrats in states like New York and California, where voters could be alienated by a House playing Trump-style circus politics.
McCarthy confident on election eve
Publicly, McCarthy is defiant. He has spent years working toward the speaker’s chair at countless state Republican Party dinners, by selecting and backing candidates and through raising tens of millions of dollars for them and the party. He told CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday: “We are going to have a good day tomorrow.”
But even if he ultimately prevails, his big moment has been tarnished by the kind of political chaos that raged untamed during the Trump administration – and could play into Democratic claims the GOP remains unfit to govern.
Ostensibly, the gang of five GOP hardliners wants to make it easier to oust a sitting speaker. It is calling for more time to scrutinize legislation and hopes to sharpen what are already looking like relentless efforts by the new House to hound the White House and President Joe Biden and his family with investigations. And far-right members also hope to bar leadership from wielding its influence in primaries ahead of the 2024 election in order to clear the way for more purist MAGA candidates.
Critics accuse McCarthy of being a creature of the “swamp” and say they don’t trust him, despite his repeated genuflections toward Trump – including an effort to whitewash the ex-president’s record on the January 6, 2021, insurrection by killing off a plan for an independent commission and his recent misrepresentation of Trump’s comments after he dined with Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes at his Florida resort.
But more broadly, lawmakers like Gaetz, Biggs and Reps. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Bob Good of Virginia and Matt Rosendale of Montana appear to be on a more emotionally driven mission to fulfill the desires of far-right “Make America Great Again” voters to destroy what they see as the establishment and to make traditional governance impossible – much as Trump was himself in the 2016 campaign.
It’s therefore hard to see whether the concessions demanded of McCarthy will ever end and whether he could ever do anything, ultimately, to satisfy his foes.
While several of Trump’s most loyal backers are standing in McCarthy’s way, the ex-president has supported his speakership bid, telling his foot soldiers in the House to get behind McCarthy.
“I’m friendly with a lot of those people who are against Kevin. I think almost every one of them are very much inclined toward Trump, and me toward them,” Trump told Breitbart in an interview in December. “But I have to tell them, and I have told them, you’re playing a very dangerous game,” he added.
The ex-president appears to believe that if McCarthy is defeated, Republicans could end up with a speaker who is less beholden to him or one who is more moderate – a key consideration as he seeks to revive his so-far lackluster 2024 White House bid and faces the possibility of indictment in several Justice Department criminal probes.
But at the same time, loyalty is often a one-way street for Trump. If he founders, McCarthy would not be the first big-time Washington player to sacrifice his career and reputation by association with the former president.
Perhaps Trump comes out ahead whatever happens.
Any alternative speaker who does make it past Gaetz and the gang of five is still likely to be firmly in the ex-president’s orbit. And if McCarthy is elected speaker, he will have key Trump figures like Greene and Jordan – whom he courted and rewarded with growing power – to thank for it.
So, in a way, for Trump, this is case of “heads I win, tails you lose.”