Biden’s Surprise Challenger & Scalise’s Speaker Weapon

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
December 22, 2022

Last week, in my piece titled Biden’s Inevitability Mythology, I reported on one of the more amusing Washington parlor games of late—the fact that a number of leading Democratic figures, like Gavin Newsom and J.B. Pritzker, are paying diligent lip service regarding their fealty to the president while quietly amassing political organizations of their own, in preparation for the possibility that Joe Biden suddenly decides not to run, or if another challenger “breaks the seal,” which would open the dam. Since then, I learned that Marianne Williamson, the spiritual activist and 2020 candidate, has been actively making significant moves toward challenging Biden. 

At a party in L.A. last month, Williamson spoke about her position against “corporate Democrats” and the need to challenge Biden. Two very reliable sources have also told me that Williamson has already put out feelers to donors and secured an exploratory committee campaign tab on Act Blue. She has visited New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Iowa (before the decision to nix Iowa from the primary lineup). She’s already trying to build an operation in South Carolina where staffers are reaching out to former Bernie Sanders alumni to see if they’re game. (Williamson declined to comment.)

Do I think the entry into the race of a fringe candidate will prompt Pritzker, Newsom, Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg to jump into the race? Unlikely. This is not an open primary, like in 2020, where Williamson was able to make it onto the debate stage twice because of her fundraising and polling, until the D.N.C. upped the threshold for debate stage access. But it will surely make for some interesting television if she’s somehow able to force the D.N.C.’s hand into actually holding a debate and a primary against a sitting president. 

It would be an incredible feat. Most insiders don’t think she has a chance, and that anyone choosing to work for her is purely focused on a short-term money-grab. Williamson gained a surprising degree of traction in 2020, but her prior criticism of federal vaccine mandates might be looked at more critically post-Covid. Her past association with prominent anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy also doesn’t help, though she says she has never supported his views, and she may have to answer for that if her campaign gets any serious momentum. 

“He’s Not Kevin”

While Kevin McCarthy has floundered for weeks trying to shore up enough support to become Speaker of the House, perhaps the strongest argument for his bid has been the conspicuous lack of any viable alternative. Sure, there were names floated by the “Never Kevins,” like House Freedom Caucus renegade Andy Biggs, former NASA chief Jim Bridenstine, outgoing House member Lee Zeldin, and even former Speaker Newt Gingrich, but none of these people were going to get more than 10 votes. It was laughable and seemed to indicate that the Freedom Caucus had no real strategy to take down McCarthy beyond extracting a few concessions and delighting in making his life hell for a bunch of news cycles. 

Then, earlier this week, one of the five public “Never Kevins” said the quiet part out loud. Matt Gaetz declared that there was another member that his caucus would support for speaker: Steve Scalise. That admission, from the pied piper of the Never Kevin crew to the New York Post, sent chills through the Capitol and indicated that the speaker’s race had a second horse. 

By suggesting Scalise, the Never Kevin bloc has subtly demonstrated that they’re not just interested in chaos for chaos’ sake. They have a real viable alternative, and it’s not just anybody: Scalise, after all, is one of the most popular, well-liked members of the House, who came out of the conference vote unanimously elected as Majority Whip, or McCarthy’s No. 2. Meanwhile, McCarthy himself hobbled out of the same vote with at least 36 members not willing to vote for him. “It’s signaling to the conference that we’re not saying we need Lauren Boebert for speaker, we’re saying we would take the number two in leadership,” said a source close to leadership. “Someone that’s very popular in the conference. He’s a legitimate candidate if he were to run.”

In truth, Scalise has always been waiting in the wings. And while there have been real questions about whether the five or so “Never Kevin” voters would support any candidate who is not a member of the House Freedom Caucus, their animosity for McCarthy is as much about his personality as his politics. “They just hate Kevin, and he’s not Kevin,” the source said. “Scalise is not going to light the world on fire,” agreed a source on the Hill. “But he’s a super likable guy. And Scalise has benefitted from not putting a marker down as many times as Kevin.” As a source close to leadership put it, “If you’re Scalise you are not lifting a phone for Kevin.” (Scalise’s office declined to comment and pointed to the many statements of support for McCarthy.) 

“It’s Desperate and It Smells”

Scalise, of course, is not ideologically dissimilar to McCarthy, and surely he would never agree that House rules be changed such that one member could trigger a vote to depose the Speaker, also known as the motion to vacate. This has been the central demand that McCarthy has refused to capitulate to in these ongoing hostage negotiations. But I spoke to someone familiar with the deliberations of the five public “No” votes for McCarthy, and they don’t foresee the motion to vacate being an issue for supporting Scalise. “It could be approached differently because there’s not a total absence of trust with Scalise,” I was told from this insider. 

Naturally, this latest development also seems like an insidious further attempt to discredit McCarthy by providing a path for his lieutenant to embark on a bloodless coup. “Everyone knows if Kevin burns down, Scalise is the best shot, he’s the best dark horse,” said the source close to leadership. “He has the juice, the operation to be speaker. I don’t see him getting a challenge and if Gaetz is signaling I’m a ‘Yes,’ it signals that Scalise would be fine.” This person continued: “It puts Scalise in a tough place. Now Kevin is thinking ‘What is Scalise doing behind the scenes, is he knifing me?’”

Until McCarthy goes to the House floor on January 3 for a very public vote on the Speakership, he and his team have been trying to build an “Only Kevin” coalition, that has turned into a pitiful “O.K.” pin, touted by John Katko, an outgoing member who won’t even be voting for the next speaker. They smartly changed that campaign to “Kevin Only,” but still “K.O.” isn’t great.

Nevertheless, the McCarthy camp, which has become increasingly “tense and desperate,” I’m told, has been trying to create the impression that there is an equally unshakeable bloc around McCarthy that is willing to back him till the very end. That public positioning was furiously engineered through an Axios story this week with 54 statements from members who claim to be “Kevin Onlys.” His office hounded members in order to procure their document of perfectly drafted statements of support. And while those testimonials are lovely, there are only 54 “Kevin Onlys” in that document, still very short of the 218 required to become House Speaker. Notably, Scalise is mentioned glowingly nine times in statements from these K.O. members, who have claimed that they will only vote for McCarthy and no one else. 

McCarthy’s team has also been furiously working the outside game through conservative influencers, like radio host Mark Levin, who has attacked the five “Never Kevins” on his show as “saboteurs” and “boneheads.” “His office has reached out to me, and I’ve been a thorn in their side for some time in my broadcast and writing. They said, we want to win you over and persuade you that this is the best course to get your agenda accomplished,” said Steve Cortes, a former Trump adviser and influential blue check-mark in conservative circles, told me. “And I was surprised because I was frankly nasty.” Cortes penned an op-ed afterward saying he’s supporting McCarthy because he has moved to the right on the border wall.

McCarthy has even tried to prove his conservative mettle during this lame duck session by refusing to pass the omnibus and picking a fight with Mitch McConnell over it. “He’s doing everything he can to convince the conservatives that he’s one of them,” said the House Freedom Caucus source. “It’s desperate and it smells.” 

“They’re ‘Only Kevin’ Until He’s Dead”

So how will this all play out? Let’s say that McCarthy walks out onto the House floor on January 3 and is shot down by the five “Never Kevins”—Gaetz, Bob Good, Andy Biggs, Ralph Norman and Matt Rosendale—on the first ballot for speaker. Perhaps he licks his wounds and makes a few deals to hand over more power to the House Freedom Caucus. But what if the initial vote is perceived as a weakness to the seven or so other House Freedom Caucus members who haven’t said publicly they’re “Never Kevin,” but have issued him their own list of demands, like Chip Roy and Scott Perry

One can only assume that by the third vote, if it gets there, things will be even worse for McCarthy, with even more members coming forward voting against him. It’s presumed that the more rounds of votes for the speakership, the worse the outcome for the candidate. Then it’s a real test of the “Only Kevins,” a more moderate bunch that includes Nancy Mace and David Valadao, who surely don’t see the value in a leaderless caucus. It becomes about practicality, which this group of members is all about, or they wouldn’t be supporting McCarthy in the first place.

“They’re ‘Only Kevin’ until he’s dead,” said the source close to leadership. “This conference is not going to let him go down in 60 ballots. I think people will start turning on him on the second or third. By the third ballot, when he’s bleeding from the floor, they’re going to say ‘You’re never going to get it, you need to step aside so we can do our jobs,” the source said. 

“No one is ‘Only Kevin,’ it’s just a question of when they break,” said a House Freedom Caucus source. “They’re not going to let the Democrats pick the speaker.”

If and when that were to happen, there would be Scalise: a literal G.O.P. martyr after he was shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter during a Congressional baseball game in 2017. Upon his heroic recovery, Scalise was treated to a coronation of sorts by Donald Trump, when he honored him at the State of the Union address. He’s always been perfectly positioned for when McCarthy falls—he has the staff infrastructure, the donor Rolodex, and, as a part of leadership for nearly a decade, the institutional knowledge of the members to pull it off. It helps that he’s the real Mr. Congeniality, the most popular member in the caucus, able to win over the moderates and now, apparently, even the most unreasonable of conservatives. 

Scalise may have an identical voting record with McCarthy, but he’s seen as a “smarter, smooth operator,” said a senior Hill aide, and perceived by some as more conservative than McCarthy because of his leadership of the conservative Republican Study Committee. He also has the critical relationship with Trump. When McCarthy dutifully made amends with Trump after January 6, as evidenced by their thumbs-up picture in Mar-a-Lago, Scalise did the same but it was a much more low-key affair without the photo proof. 

Politico reported on Tuesday that members have told Scalise to be ready for the moment when McCarthy falters. But really there’s not much Scalise can do. He can’t be seen as provoking the situation at all. He’s publicly behind McCarthy, with statements like this one to CNN: “No, I’m not going to get into speculation. Obviously, our focus is on getting it resolved by January 3. And there’s a lot of conversations that everybody has been having—Kevin [has], surely—with the members who have expressed concerns.”