Kevin McCarthy Suddenly Drops His Bid for Speaker of the House

The House majority leader’s decision has stunned the House and shaken up the race.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on October 8, 2015.
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Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Oct. 8, 2015, 12:28 p.m.

House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy has pulled him­self out of the race to re­place John Boehner as speak­er of the House, he told the GOP caucus Thursday. House Re­pub­lic­ans an­nounced that the lead­er­ship elec­tion has been post­poned “un­til a later date.”

“I think I shocked some of you, huh?,” Mc­Carthy said in short press re­marks just be­fore 1 p.m. Say­ing he feels good about his de­cision, Mc­Carthy sug­ges­ted, “To unite, we prob­ably need a fresh face.” 

A re­port­er asked Mc­Carthy if his con­tro­ver­sial com­ments about the Benghazi Se­lect Com­mit­tee—in which he im­plied its ob­ject­ive has been to hurt Hil­lary Clin­ton in the pres­id­en­tial race—played in­to his de­cision. “Well, that wasn’t help­ful,” Mc­Carthy replied. The lead­er’s of­fice said that he in­tends to stay on in his cur­rent post.

The over­all mood on the Hill has been of ab­so­lute shock.

One of Mc­Carthy’s chal­lengers, Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz, told re­port­ers he was “ab­so­lutely stunned” in short re­marks to press Thursday af­ter­noon. “Did not see this com­ing.” Chaf­fetz, who said he’s stay­ing in the race, said, “I really do be­lieve it is time for a fresh start—that was the whole gen­es­is of my cam­paign.” Be­fore com­ing to the po­di­um, Chaf­fetz said, “I don’t know if I’m the right per­son,” and that “the con­fer­ence needs to have a vari­ety of choices. That’s a healthy part of the pro­cess. That’s why I put my name in the ring.”

Rep. Ry­an Cos­tello, one of the first 10 mem­bers to exit the room where Mc­Carthy made his an­nounce­ment, said the ma­jor­ity lead­er stood up in front of the room and said he is not the right per­son to uni­fy the con­fer­ence. Boehner then said the elec­tion would be post­poned. In a state­ment later, Boehner said that he will stay on as speak­er un­til a new lead­er is elec­ted, which he is “con­fid­ent” will hap­pen in the com­ing weeks.

Rep. Peter King came out of the meet­ing com­pletely stunned. King said that it was hard to hear what Mc­Carthy was say­ing. “We were all just thun­der­struck,” said Rep. John Flem­ing.

“I’m still try­ing to pro­cess what just happened,” said Rep. Lou Bar­letta.

Rep. Mark San­ford came out of the meet­ing with a full plate of bar­be­cue, slaw, and a slew of ques­tions. He said some mem­bers were cry­ing as Mc­Carthy made his an­nounce­ment. “There were a lot of emo­tions, be­cause it was so ex­traordin­ary and out of the or­din­ary,” he said. “The per­son next to me was cry­ing,” Rep. Tom Rooney said.

Rep. Brett Gu­thrie, who had been com­mit­ted to sup­port Mc­Carthy, said he was stunned, adding that he had spoken with Mc­Carthy’s wife just be­fore the news broke and even she didn’t give the secret away. 

Rep. Dar­rell Issa told re­port­ers shortly after the news broke that the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence was taken aback by the news. “Kev­in Mc­Carthy had the vast ma­jor­ity of the con­fer­ence’s con­fid­ence and votes,” Issa said. Ac­cord­ing to Issa, Mc­Carthy will be­come “the most im­port­ant en­dorse­ment for who­ever ul­ti­mately be­comes the speak­er.”

What comes next is, so far, un­cer­tain.

Rep. Trey Gowdy told re­port­ers that there are mem­bers who have the abil­ity to lead and unite the party, but “they are not will­ing to do it.” When asked if he would take the job him­self if his col­leagues asked, he entered the el­ev­at­or, turned around, and said, “No.” 

One of those Re­pub­lic­ans who has pulled him­self out is House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an. After Mc­Carthy’s de­cision, Ry­an again stated that he has no in­terest in run­ning for the job. “Kev­in Mc­Carthy is best per­son to lead the House, and so I’m dis­ap­poin­ted in this de­cision,” he said in a state­ment. “Now it is im­port­ant that we, as a con­fer­ence, take time to de­lib­er­ate and seek new can­did­ates for the speak­er­ship. While I am grate­ful for the en­cour­age­ment I’ve re­ceived, I will not be a can­did­ate.”

Rep. Charlie Dent spec­u­lated to the cause for Mc­Carthy’s sud­den de­cision, say­ing: “It was pretty simple ac­tu­ally. Kev­in had a strong ma­jor­ity of votes among the Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers to be­come the next speak­er. It’s pretty ob­vi­ous he didn’t have 218 votes … and had this gone to the floor, I think there was great con­cern that maybe he couldn’t get 218 votes, and it would have been ob­vi­ously em­bar­rass­ing to not be elec­ted speak­er.”

“Be­fore John Boehner stepped down, I said, if John Boehner steps down, the same people who were try­ing to take John Boehner down will try to frag the next guy,” Dent said. “Well, that is just what happened.” When asked who Boehner al­lies would now sup­port, Rep. Pat Tiberi threw up his arms.

Rep. Rooney, a Mc­Carthy sup­port­er, said he ap­proached the ma­jor­ity lead­er after his de­cision and said he would have taken heat for vot­ing for him. “That’s what I just told Mc­Carthy in there, you know, ‘I would’ve taken the ar­rows for you. I already have,’” he said. “He’s ob­vi­ously put the party ahead of him­self, I guess. I just don’t know where we go from here.”

There has been some im­me­di­ate sup­port for Mc­Carthy’s de­cision though among Re­pub­lic­ans. “This was ex­actly what John Boehner did. He put the in­terests of the party, of the Con­gress, and the na­tion ahead of his own per­son­al in­terests. It was an hon­or­able thing that Kev­in did. I think he re­cog­nized that he had no path to get to 218 votes on the House floor, and leav­ing here with the nom­in­a­tion based just on 51 per­cent and hav­ing two weeks to try un­suc­cess­fully to get to 218 on the House floor was something he didn’t want to put his party through. I think he made the right de­cision,” said Rep. Dav­id Jolly.

Rep. Dana Rohra­bach­er, who had been crit­ic­al of Mc­Carthy last week, said Mc­Carthy was “cour­ageous” for step­ping out of the race: “This is a ter­rif­ic thing for the party. This opens the whole party.” 

Rep. Steve King said Mc­Carthy’s de­cision was “noble,” and he plans to con­tin­ue to sup­port Rep. Daniel Web­ster for speak­er. Rep. Louie Gohmert also said he planned to stay be­hind Web­ster. Web­ster, for his part, said he had been “99 per­cent sure” Mc­Carthy would win. “I was shocked,” he said. Web­ster says he’ll con­tin­ue his cam­paign for the gavel.

The House Free­dom Caucus called an emer­gency meet­ing dir­ectly after the an­nounce­ment. Rep. Mick Mul­vaney said he spoke with Mc­Carthy 20 minutes be­fore the elec­tion was to oc­cur, and Mc­Carthy was look­ing for HFC Chair­man Jim Jordan. But he said the group isn’t claim­ing an­oth­er scalp as they have with Boehner’s resig­na­tion. “I don’t take it as a vic­tory,” he said. But when asked how to move for­ward, he said there are a couple pos­sib­il­it­ies: “We could start talk­ing now about a care­taker. We could talk about someone in the cen­ter who could be ac­cept­able to both sides. We might talk about some­body who is an in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist, like Web­ster.”

Rep. Tim Huel­skamp, a vo­cal op­pon­ent of the cur­rent GOP lead­er­ship, though, de­clared a vic­tory of sorts on MS­N­BC. “This lead­er­ship has lost,” Huel­skamp said. “They have es­sen­tially lost two speak­ers in two weeks.”

“This is re­mark­ably sim­il­ar to the Gin­grich-Liv­ing­ston-Hastert situ­ation of about 20 years ago,” Jolly said. “Where the way we ended up with a Speak­er Hastert is be­cause the caucus got thrown in­to such dis­ar­ray that we had to build con­sensus be­hind closed doors. And that’s what we should have done. We should’ve been work­ing today to get to 218 as a fam­ily be­hind closed doors be­fore risk­ing a loss on the House floor.”

This story is break­ing and will be up­dated. Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misid­en­ti­fied Rep. Ry­an Cos­tello, R-Penn.

Lauren Fox, Daniel Newhauser, Alex Brown, Alex Rogers, Clare Foran, Brian Resnick and Ben Geman contributed to this article.
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