House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is quietly lining up votes to succeed Paul Ryan as speaker, reaching out to key lawmakers across the Republican Conference and asking whether they will commit to back him as speaker next January, according to GOP lawmakers and aides.
In public, McCarthy says he’s not campaigning for the job, saying it’s more important to focus on saving the Republican majority in the House than a campaign for the top leadership post.
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Yet running for speaker is precisely what McCarthy is doing.
He isn’t talking to every member of the House GOP Conference, according to lawmakers who have spoken to him about the issue. Instead, McCarthy is targeting select lawmakers who represent different factions of the conference.
McCarthy is hoping that locking up those members now will serve as a “force multiplier” if and when he formally announces a bid for speaker.
His ask, according to those on the receiving end, is simple and direct.
“Kevin asked me for my vote,” said a veteran Republican lawmaker who asked not to be named. “He said, ‘Will you vote for me to become speaker? I want your vote.’” This lawmaker said he wouldn’t commit yet.
“I had a general-purpose conversation [about] how we will be reorganized next year,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). “The question came up, ‘Was I gonna vote for him [to be speaker]?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will vote for you, Kevin.'”
Lucas added: “Underneath the surface, there’s been an unofficial, ongoing race since the day Speaker Ryan announced he would not return. It’s not been official or above-board. But this is a place full of political animals.”
A significant number of members have also privately come to McCarthy without being asked to pledge their backing, according to Republicans.
It’s not surprising that McCarthy is reaching out to lawmakers now, despite his claims to the contrary. Any lawmaker who’s ever succeeded in a leadership bid knows the importance of planning and seeking votes early. House members have only 2½ more weeks in session before the month-long August recess. When they return in the fall, most members will be focused on reelection. So now is McCarthy’s best shot to gather commitments.
Yet McCarthy’s long runway also means more chances for missteps. In 2015, McCarthy dropped his bid for speaker at the last minute in the face of opposition from the Freedom Caucus, paving the way for Ryan to replace John Boehner as speaker. So this is his last shot at the brass ring.
Looming in the background is Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who is ready to run for speaker if McCarthy can’t clinch the needed 218 votes.
McCarthy also hasn’t wanted to undermine Ryan, a close friend, by openly campaigning for his job, despite the fact that Ryan’s retirement in the middle of the election cycle put McCarthy in a terrible position. McCarthy has had to try to round up support to become speaker with a lame-duck Ryan still in the job.
So McCarthy has tried to keep his efforts below the radar.
McCarthy still has to deal the House Freedom Caucus, which will have virtual veto power over the selection of the next speaker, assuming that Republicans keep the House. While McCarthy is close to President Donald Trump, that support may not be enough to overcome opposition from GOP hard-liners. Trump has not endorsed a successor to Ryan.
McCarthy’s office did not comment on his efforts to line up votes for speaker but noted that he interacts with a large number of members on a daily basis.
“It is natural that he is constantly focused on what they are thinking about — including legislative priorities and how the House can operate more effectively,” Matt Sparks, McCarthy’s communications director, said in a statement. “These interactions help fuel his commitment — on the House floor as well as traveling across the country — to ensuring Republicans maintain and grow this House majority.”
In a boost to his efforts to lead the conference, McCarthy has dramatically increased his fundraising this cycle, putting him on a tier occupied only by Ryan or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
McCarthy has raised more than $41 million this cycle, his reelection campaign announced on Wednesday, including $12 million in the second quarter of this year. A big chunk of that came from a joint fundraising committee created by McCarthy and Vice President Mike Pence. McCarthy has raised money for more than 130 candidates and incumbents, according to his campaign committee.
“He’s been killing it on the fundraising,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican who said McCarthy is effectively laying the groundwork for a speakership run. “He’s more engaged with members on issues and messaging.” Davis’ praise is noteworthy because he has long been an ally of Scalise.
The majority leader brought back Nick Bouknight, his former deputy chief of staff, to run his expanding political operation. Bouknight works in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s offices.
McCarthy has used his sway with Trump to help members, too. He persuaded the president to issue a tweet endorsing Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), despite her criticism of Trump in 2016. Many House Republicans thought her call for Trump to “step aside” after the release of the “Access Hollywood” video would doom her political career. Instead, Trump’s tweet helped make her the heavy favorite in a runoff election that Roby was seen in danger of losing.
McCarthy and Ryan also prodded Trump to endorse New York GOP Rep. Dan Donovan during his primary race against ex-Rep. Michael Grimm, who wanted to return to Congress despite a stint in prison for tax evasion. Trump obliged, and Donovan, who has a long relationship with Trump, easily dispatched Grimm.
McCarthy’s attempts to woo GOP lawmakers — particularly conservatives — has at times put him at odds with Ryan. Two weeks ago, Ryan told reporters he was satisfied with the Department of Justice and FBI‘s response to requests for documents from House committees overseeing the Russia investigation.
Ryan’s comments infuriated Trump allies on the Hill, who went to McCarthy to complain and ask for more action. The next day, news leaked out that McCarthy would allow a floor vote on a resolution and the House Rules Committee called an emergency meeting to ready the document for consideration. It was a joint decision by GOP leadership, including Ryan, according to Republican sources, but McCarthy’s willingness to weigh in on the issue was noted by conservatives.
McCarthy has also stepped up his attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of any Russia coordination with the Trump campaign, a winning argument with the hard-liners. And he pushed the House to try to rescind billions of dollars in government spending at Trump’s behest, an idea the far right applauded but that annoyed most rank-and-file members.
Finally, the majority leader has gone out of his way to help members from swing districts, including several freshmen, secure floor votes on pet bills — a boon to their reelection campaigns.
In some ways, Ryan is already passing the baton to McCarthy. He’s incorporated McCarthy into his money-raising efforts for the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aimed at protecting the House GOP majority. McCarthy has made roughly 20 phone calls to top Republican donors to raise money for CLF, as well as attending five of the group’s events with Ryan, according to a source familiar with the operation.
“I think there is no doubt he’s put in a lot of work for the majority,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). “And you’ve seen that we have a very diverse conference, obviously, and he does his best to bring the different parts together. So I think he’s shown strong leadership traits. And I think he’d be a good speaker.”