WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in Congress are confronting fresh threats to their power and divisions in their ranks from an emboldened and embittered right flank, after a weaker than expected midterm election performance that has demoralized their party.
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California resoundingly won the Republican nomination for speaker on Tuesday, but a right-wing challenger drew more than two dozen defectors, showing weakness in Mr. McCarthy’s hold on his party and pointing to a potentially rough fight ahead of him to secure the job at the start of the new Congress.
The vote, which took place as his party was still clawing its way to what appeared likely to be a historically slim majority, came as Mr. McCarthy’s Republican counterpart across the Capitol, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, confronted a challenge for his position and a conservative mini-revolt of his own from colleagues who aired their anger about the midterm election results during a testy private luncheon that dragged on for nearly four hours.
His own diagnosis of the party’s performance was scathing, and appeared to suggest that he believed Republicans had brought their midterm misfortunes upon themselves with extreme candidates and divisive messages.
“We underperformed among independents and moderates because their impression of many of the people in our party and leadership roles is that they’re involved in chaos, negativity, excessive attacks,” Mr. McConnell said. Those critical voters, he said were “frightened” of the G.O.P.
Both leaders appeared to be on track to secure their party’s top positions. But the scenes unfolding on both ends of Capitol Hill were evidence of continuing fallout and deep divisions in the Republican Party as lawmakers searched for a path forward. And they foreshadowed headaches ahead in the new Congress for the two leaders as they attempt to corral their restive right wings, with former President Donald J. Trump, who still holds heavy sway in the party, looming as a major force ahead of his expected announcement that he will seek re-election in 2024.
Mr. McCarthy’s nomination was a successful first showing for the eighth-term congressman from California. But it was only the opening act in what was shaping up to be a long and painful path to the speakership.
Understand the Outcomes of the 2022 Midterm Elections
In a secret-ballot vote held behind closed doors at the Capitol, he easily defeated a challenge on his right from Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, a former chairman of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus who ran as a protest candidate. Mr. McCarthy only needed the support of a majority of his conference — including incumbents, newly elected members and candidates in uncalled races — and drew far more than that, in a final tally of 188 to 31.
But the vote revealed that Mr. McCarthy still did not have the 218 votes he would need to secure the post in a poll of the entire House in January. With a razor-thin majority and all Democrats expected to oppose him, Mr. McCarthy will only be able to afford to lose a few Republicans.
That mathematical reality has strengthened the hand of right-wing lawmakers who are pressing Mr. McCarthy to enact changes that would maximize their power and weaken his, including effectively allowing any Republican to move to dump the speaker at any moment and to negotiate directly with the speaker for committee assignments.
Mr. McCarthy expressed confidence to reporters after the vote that he would ultimately win the speaker’s gavel, and pledged that he would oversee a conference in which “no one is going to have more power than anybody else.”
At the same time, he acknowledged it would require some concessions given the demands from his right flank: “Everyone is going to have to give a little from both sides,” he said.
In the Senate, after an acrimonious meeting in which Republicans debated why they had failed to quickly secure the majority, Senator Rick Scott of Florida announced a challenge to Mr. McConnell for the top leadership position.
Voters “are begging us to tell them what we will do when we are in charge,” Mr. Scott said in a letter to senators announcing his bid. “Unfortunately, we have continued to elect leadership who refuses to do that and elicits attacks on anyone that does. That is clearly not working, and it’s time for bold change.”
He appeared to be referring to Mr. McConnell’s public rejection last spring of a platform that Mr. Scott had put out for Republican candidates that called for, among other things, imposing new taxes on millions of Americans and phasing out Social Security and Medicare.
Mr. McConnell, who had warned this year that “candidate quality” could hurt his party, offered a different assessment altogether, suggesting that it was Mr. Scott, who served as the chairman of the conference’s campaign committee, who was to blame.
“I never predicted a red wave,” Mr. McConnell told reporters.
He said that the dust-up could delay a planned leadership election set for Wednesday, a move that would meet a key demand of his conference’s hard-right flank. But he projected confidence about the outcome: “I have the votes and will be elected,” Mr. McConnell declared.
Behind closed doors in an auditorium in the Capitol, Mr. McCarthy’s allies pitched him as a battle-tested unifier who had brought them to the House majority, however slim. Before the vote, Representative Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota stood to support the minority leader and called for unity, saying that Republicans needed a leader who understood that “when we fight among ourselves, the Democrats win,” according to people familiar with the remarks who described them on the condition of anonymity.
Yet in the hallways of the Capitol, Republicans sounded anything but unified, grousing openly about their party’s disappointing showing.
House conservatives have a long history of bedeviling their leaders and plunging leadership elections into chaos. John Boehner was driven out as speaker in 2015, and resigned rather than face a potentially humiliating fight driven by the right flank of his party. And Mr. McCarthy himself was thwarted by a clutch of hard-liners after he mounted a bid to succeed Mr. Boehner.
But Mr. McCarthy’s task now is in some ways singularly difficult, saddled with a razor-thin majority and a group of far-right lawmakers more obstreperous than their predecessors.
Some of his perennial foils were openly gloating that they would never allow him to become speaker.
“To believe that Kevin McCarthy is going to be speaker, you have to believe he’s going to get votes in the next six weeks that he couldn’t get in the last six years,” said Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida.
The challenge from Mr. Scott, on the other hand, is the first time Mr. McConnell has ever been challenged for his leadership position.
Some of his colleagues were clearly exasperated by the move. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah said some Republicans were making “comments about Leader McConnell that are less designed to influence his re-election as leader and more designed to position them for their campaigns.”
But others argued it was important for the party to pause and reassess after its defeat.
“I want our leaders to come back next month or whatever and say, ‘OK, this is what went wrong; this is what we’re going to change both on a policy front and a campaign front,’” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. “Once you vote, everybody moves on.”
Carl Hulse and Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.