Nov 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The perils of a narrow House Republican majority

House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) delivers remarks to supporters alongside Ronna Romney McDaniel, Republican National Committee chair, and Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN)

House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) delivers remarks to supporters alongside RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel and Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) at a watch party in Washington, D.C. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

House Republicans are coming to grips with the harsh reality of what a single-digit majority could look like — starting with a newly empowered far-right flank that could seriously threaten GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy's House speaker ambitions.

Why it matters: McCarthy, who arguably took a more hands-on approach to candidate recruitment and fundraising than any past House GOP leader, is now in an extremely vulnerable position.

  • McCarthy had planned to take the stage at his election night party to declare victory as early as 10 pm ET — expecting a red wave would put him on a glide path to becoming House speaker.
  • But the red wave never came, and even his 2am declaration that Republicans would be in the majority when attendees woke up in the morning failed to come to fruition.

State of play: With such little wiggle room for dissent, McCarthy's hunt for the 218 votes needed to be elected speaker has become more difficult than he'd expected.

  • Privately, House GOP lawmakers and aides tell Axios they're unsure he can pull it off. Some are even saying as much publicly.
  • "Kevin McCarthy has not done anything to earn my vote for speaker," Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), a House Freedom Caucus board member, told Axios following an HFC board call Wednesday.
  • “I believe there’s a number of members who feel as I do and who will support a challenge to him as the speaker when we convene next week,” Good added. "I don’t think he has the votes."

Between the lines: The Freedom Caucus and others on the GOP conference's far-right are already plotting how they can leverage this new dynamic to their advantage, with plans to force McCarthy and other leaders to make massive concessions to secure their positions in power.

  • It's unlikely that multiple members will come forward to challenge him for the speaker role, according to conversations Axios had with a series of House GOP members and staff.
  • More realistic, they say, is a scenario in which McCarthy fails to reach the magic number of 218 or must give away a serious amount of political capital to do so. In this event, universally respected members like Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) or Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) could step forward as alternatives.

What we're hearing: Some ambitious members have begun putting out feelers for this type of scenario, but it's too soon to tell whether anyone would consider making a real effort to usurp McCarthy — let alone whether they'd be seen as a viable alternative. McCarthy will also get, and deserves, credit for flipping the House, our sources note.

Zoom in: The GOP whip's race, meanwhile, was always going to be the most competitive leadership contest — but it's grown even fiercer in the last 24 hours.

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee, is at a disadvantage due to widespread disappointment about the GOP's performance.

  • Emmer was hoping to use a strong election outcome as his main selling point for becoming whip. He's arguing to his colleagues that despite the underwhelming results, his work was instrumental in taking the majority.
  • Many members echoed that sentiment to Axios, crediting the NRCC chief for massively outspending Democrats this cycle and helping clinch an overall win.

Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) have also been calling members in an early effort to lock down votes for the race.

  • Several members, many of whom sit on the Republican Study Committee that Banks chairs, told Axios they think Banks could be successful because he can influence the conservative wing of the conference.

Timing: It's still unclear whether leadership elections will take place on Nov. 14, as planned. Some members have made the case that moving quickly works to McCarthy's and Emmer's benefit, while others have argued they don't see how the date isn't delayed now.

The big picture: Nearly every GOP member and aide Axios spoke with said the party's underperformance was driven by candidate quality, underestimating the lasting fallout from the Supreme Court's abortion decision and an over-reliance on former President Trump's star power.

What they're saying: "People are disappointed, and I think the reality is hitting everyone today that it's not going to be easy," a Texas GOP member told Axios.

  • "Governing is going to be hard and it's going to take serious leaders. This is not a popularity contest. ... It's going to take serious leaders who can move the ball down the field in an effective way. Everyone I've talked to is worried about that."
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