After Midterms, Republican Rebels Try to Make Their Leaders Sweat

It’s the ultimate inside game. But the postelection jockeying for leadership posts in the House and Senate is one of the most telling indicators of how America’s two main political parties are processing their wins and losses. The races are largely conducted behind closed doors, with much of the positioning and vote-whipping having taken place over the course of months.

On the Republican side, the leadership battles are nonetheless a lens that gives us glimpses of the disappointments and internal arguments coursing through a party that did far worse on Nov. 8 than its leaders had expected.

In the House, Republicans just endorsed the status quo. By a vote of 188 to 31, they nominated Representative Kevin McCarthy as their candidate to replace his fellow Californian, Representative Nancy Pelosi, as speaker. They also returned Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Elise Stefanik of New York to the No. 2 and No. 3 jobs in the Republican conference.

The only real drama was the race for whip, the No. 4 job. Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who steered House Republicans’ campaign committee for the last two elections, won narrowly over Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, the leader of the Republican Study Committee, and Representative Drew Ferguson of Georgia.

But McCarthy will need 218 votes to win the speaker’s gavel in January, once the new Congress is seated. Much can happen between now and then, and the far-right Freedom Caucus — whose former co-chair, Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, ran against McCarthy — has indicated that it intends to make him sweat.

McCarthy’s task over the next few weeks will be to grind down his opposition or buy it off with concessions. All the while, he will have to contend with Donald Trump’s return to the political arena, after his expected announcement of a third presidential run on Tuesday night. Jason Miller, a member of Trump’s inner circle, said recently that McCarthy “must be much more declarative that he supports President Trump” if he wants the former president’s full backing.

On the Senate side, where Republicans narrowly missed an opportunity to reclaim the majority, there have been some complaints on the right about campaign spending decisions made by Senator Mitch McConnell and his allies. And while Senator Rick Scott of Florida announced a challenge on Tuesday, arguing that “the status quo is broken and big change is needed,” McConnell’s path to return as leader seems much smoother than McCarthy’s.

To understand what is going on, I chatted with Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and a keen observer of the congressional scene:

When they take power in January, House Republicans will have a very thin majority. Obviously, that gives Representative Kevin McCarthy less room to maneuver as he tries to become speaker. He went for the gavel once before — in 2015 — and had to withdraw. What has he learned that could help him this time around, or what is he doing differently?

McCarthy was done in partly in 2015 by a dumb comment that he made conceding that the point of the Benghazi hearings was to drive down Hillary Clinton’s popularity. That kind of gaffe made his colleagues nervous, and McCarthy was forced to withdraw from the race to replace Speaker John Boehner. Republicans then turned to Paul Ryan, who didn’t really want the job but accepted it.

McCarthy has been much more careful in his remarks and much more accommodating to the right wing of the party than he was in the past.

Until their surprisingly poor showing in last week’s elections, Republicans were also saying that McCarthy’s political chops in getting Republicans in position to win was enough to cement the speakership for him. But the embarrassing results have definitely cut into that argument.

Now McCarthy is in negotiations over just how much ground he will cede to the right in setting the rules to dilute his power, and how far he goes will probably determine whether he can rally his troops to show he could get 218 votes on the floor.

There must be a point, however, where the job is not worth the sacrifice in power, and it will be interesting to see if McCarthy gets there. This job has been his ambition for a decade.

Two things working in his favor are that House Republicans are accustomed to him serving as leader and that potential rivals such as Steve Scalise, the popular No. 2 Republican from Louisiana, are backing him to this point. McCarthy is in for some difficult times keeping his troops in line until the vote on the House floor in January. But given their political problems, many of them no doubt want to avoid a scalding leadership fight.

Over in the Senate, we are seeing a number of Republicans urge a delay in their leadership elections. I think we all assume McConnell will return as minority leader. Is there any real doubt about that?

From everyone I have talked to, McConnell is secure in his job. Mostly his supporters are flabbergasted that Scott, who was in charge of the Senate Republican midterm campaign, would think that he is a good alternative for leader after an underwhelming election showing. There seems to be no broad appetite for a delay in the elections, and most Republicans think the argument that they should wait until the Georgia runoff is decided is weak and a stalling tactic.

McConnell gets credit for raising hundreds of millions of dollars to pump into races such as Ohio, and many in the rank-and-file think that he was right when he earlier warned that “candidate quality” was going to be a problem for Republicans. He is set to become the longest-serving Senate leader in history, and his colleagues want him to reach that goal in January.

McConnell did draw some criticism for allowing Democrats to post too many legislative victories last fall — a gun safety measure and a chip production bill among them — but that is not enough dissension to unseat him. Though he will remain in place, his performance is likely to be more closely watched than usual, and jockeying to succeed him is likely to intensify a bit.

Are there any signs that Trump is losing influence within Congress? How does his recent behavior, and the chorus of criticism coming from Republican elites, translate into these leadership elections?

We have all heard many times that Trump is finally losing his grip on congressional Republicans, only to see it tighten anew.

Trump’s strength is that he has a hold on a significant number of Republican voters, and Republican members of Congress need their votes and cannot afford to alienate them.

At the same time, this election showed independents moving away from Republicans, at least partly because of Trump, and Republicans cannot afford that either.

Therein lies the problem. Trump has now cost Republicans the House in 2018, the White House and Senate in 2020 and at least the Senate in 2022. As for the leadership elections, McConnell is a frequent Trump target (despite delivering him three Supreme Court justices!), but his colleagues still want him in the top job even though Trump will no doubt continue to attack him. More Trump fealty is required in the House, and it will be fascinating to see who endorses Trump there if he moves ahead with an announcement of his presidential candidacy.


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