WASHINGTON — House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday easily defeated conservative Rep. Andy Biggs to win the GOP nomination for speaker of the House.
But that was the easy part for McCarthy.
The 188-31 closed-door, secret-ballot vote illustrates what his conservative foes have been saying for the past week: McCarthy hasn’t secured the 218 Republican votes needed to win the speaker’s gavel on the House floor on Jan. 3, the first day of the new Congress.
The California Republican has his work cut out for him. He now has seven weeks to try to win over some of those recalcitrant conservatives who cast a protest vote for Biggs. The Arizona Republican and former leader of the far-right, Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus (HFC) had not announced he would challenge McCarthy until Monday night.
NBC News has not yet projected which party controls the House, though the NBC Decision Desk estimates that Republicans will end up with 220 seats and Democrats with 215, with a margin of error of plus or minus three seats.
If that estimate holds, it likely means that McCarthy will need to flip a number of those “no” votes to get to the magic number of 218. Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., Biggs and others in the group are demanding that McCarthy make concessions on House rules and process changes before they pledge their support to him.
“Minority Leader McCarthy does not have the votes needed to become the next Speaker of the House and his speakership should not be a foregone conclusion,” Biggs said in a statement.
Other leadership races
In other leadership races, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., is expected to be elected majority leader; he ran unopposed for the No. 2 job in leadership.
And Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., is expected to lead the House GOP’s campaign arm, the National Congressional Campaign Committee (NRCC), in the 2024 cycle. His challenger, Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., dropped out of the race at the last minute on Monday and threw his support to Hudson.
The three-way race for GOP whip has generated the most buzz inside GOP circles. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., the NRCC chair this cycle, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., the chief deputy whip, are all vying to become the party’s No. 3 leader and top vote counter.
In the race for the No. 4 post, House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, D-N.Y., is facing a challenge from Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., a Freedom Caucus member and one of four Black Republicans who will serve in the House next year.
The ‘red wave’ that wasn’t
Heading into the Nov. 8 midterm election, McCarthy and Republicans were jubilant, predicting a “red wave” would flip dozens of House seats and sweep the GOP into the majority by a wide margin. A year earlier, McCarthy had predicted his party might flip as many as 60 seats in 2022.
Instead, Democrats won key governor races in Arizona and Pennsylvania, kept control of the Senate, and limited losses in the House, leaving Republicans absolutely stunned.
Conservatives are now pinning blame for the disastrous midterm results on GOP leaders like McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And they want McCarthy to agree to a series of rules changes that would water down the power of the next speaker and give rank-and-file members more control.
Specifically, they want McCarthy to reinstate a rule to make it easier to force a vote to oust a sitting speaker — something known as a “motion to vacate.” McCarthy is unlikely to agree to that proposed change, but he could support other reforms like requiring bills to go through committee before they are brought to the floor, allowing amendments on all bills that come to the floor, and giving members more time to read bills before they are voted on.
One thing McCarthy has going for him is support from some very influential figures in the Republican party. Former President Donald Trump, who is expected to announce a 2024 presidential bid later Tuesday, has endorsed his longtime ally, McCarthy, for speaker. So has Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a Freedom Caucus member who is enormously popular among grassroots conservatives.
McCarthy also won backing from a one-time rival, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who challenged the California Republican for minority leader in 2018 and led the Freedom Caucus in 2015 when the group derailed McCarthy’s first unsuccessful bid for speaker.
In the years since, McCarthy has wooed Jordan and other conservatives with plum assignments and other offerings. The GOP leader helped Jordan win the top Republican spot on the powerful Judiciary Committee, which will set Jordan up to become chairman if Republicans take control of the chamber.
In an interview Tuesday, Jordan said he hoped his Freedom Caucus colleagues could work out a deal with McCarthy in the coming weeks that would pave the way for his speakership.
“I think they can hopefully put together an agreement and we get there,” Jordan told NBC News. “The key thing for Republicans is that we stay unified so we can stop the craziness form the Biden administration. That’s what I’m focused on.”