McCarthy’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

House And Senate Convene For The 118th Congress On Capitol Hill
From conversations with allies of the 19 initial “no” votes, their opposition to Kevin McCarthy is about more than just wrangling concessions. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images.
Tina Nguyen
January 5, 2023

In the weeks leading up to January 3rd, the first day of the new Congress, a small clique of far right hardliners within the House Freedom Caucus—the majority of them freshmen, backbenchers, and members still waiting to be sworn in—were quietly, furiously reading up on the chamber’s arcane rules. They took meetings with the Office of the Parliamentarian, peppering the House’s resident expert with questions about which procedures to abide by on the floor, past precedents to thwart a speakership election, and what sort of motions they could call to grind Kevin McCarthy’s political future into dust. “I guarantee you,” a strategist close to their efforts told me, “that each of those 20 knows vastly more about House procedure than your typical non-leadership, middle-of-the-road member of the Republican conference.”

Their efforts and discussions went largely unnoticed by the press or their peers. Most of the media attention, after all, centered on the five “Never Kevin” hardliners who had stated publicly that they wouldn’t vote for McCarthy under any circumstances. Given the G.O.P.’s razor-thin margin in the House, McCarthy could only afford to lose four votes, but the five seemed small enough to break, or to peel off with symbolic concessions, and McCarthy’s allies were certain that they could reach 218 “ayes” within two rounds of votes.

Of course, as my partner Tara Palmeri has been reporting, there was always a larger, silent bloc of House Republicans sympathetic to the Never Kevin cause. While the likes of Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert drew all the fire with their political antics, another dozen-plus refuseniks—including Scott Perry, Chip Roy, and Dan Bishop, among others—were building their numbers, circulating letters outlining their demands, and strategizing behind the scenes. “I was honestly shocked that none of [our meetings] leaked afterwards, just because when you work with the Freedom Caucus, you always expect things to leak,” a source with knowledge of the negotiations told me.

On January 3rd, this small, tight-knit posse burst from the shadows. I was standing in a hallway in a Congressional office building, attending a Republican member’s open house, when several Republican lobbyists gasped that Bishop, a congressman entering his second term had, unexpectedly, just voted “no” on McCarthy. By the end of the first round, not one, not ten, but 19 Republicans had voted against McCarthy, fueled by the last-minute addition of several members who were pissed off by McCarthy’s arrogant declaration that morning that he’d “earned” the Speaker title. By the third round of voting on Tuesday, as the anti-Kevin coalition expanded to 20, it was clear that the opposition was driven by more than just political demands. “Borrowing language from the Pro-McCarthy wing, yes, this is not for fame or notoriety, it’s a holy war,” a conservative comms operative familiar with the thinking of the 20 told me. “It’s ideological and principle based objections. It’s about distrusting status quo conservatives.”

Indeed, from the conversations I’ve had with allies of the 19 initial “no” votes, their opposition to McCarthy is more than just wrangling concessions. Rather, their outrage stems from what they consider to be McCarthy’s original sin: disloyalty and nihilism in pursuit of his ambition to wield the gavel. Recent news articles suggesting how much McCarthy donated to the campaigns of his antagonistes miss the point. That was all ex post facto wet-kissing. They have not forgotten, after all, that he worked to undermine them and their MAGA allies in the midterm primaries, spending millions against their campaigns and boosting more moderate challengers. Nor do they trust that a former Majority Whip who had privately tried to get Donald Trump to resign after January 6th would ever have their backs against the Washington machine. For many of them, the opposition is personal. And when they say that they would prefer anyone who is not McCarthy, they truly mean it.

“Every time Kevin sends his people out to go talk to the dissenters, whenever our side says Look, we want a leader with substance and a leader who believes in it, they all immediately know exactly the criticism that we’re talking about,” the source with knowledge of their negotiations told me. “People don’t trust McCarthy. They don’t think he’s proven himself to be trustworthy. And they think that he cares more about becoming speaker than he does about actually changing things and working to fix the institution.”

The Taliban Twenty

The curricula vitae of the group that Don Bacon termed the “Taliban Twenty” are diverse, both politically and biographically: Anna Paulina Luna is a St. Petersburg-based MAGA influencer, Keith Self is a relative moderate (by MAGA terms) from suburban Dallas, Eli Crane is a former Shark Tank entrepreneur who has barely tweeted, the lingua franca of the movement. But the unified opposition of these newcomers, most of whom were elected after 2018, can be subdivided into three broad categories. There are the procedural wonks, who are clamoring for rule changes and reforms to the committee process, like Chip Roy; the MAGA sadists who would simply like to make McCarthy ice fish naked in a Siberian forest in mid-January, like Gaetz; and a larger group who share in the suspicion that McCarthy has no true ideological core. 

Strategically, the group has been careful to not publicly name a singular leader who could become the target of intense lobbying—different members, for instance, have taken turns nominating alternative speaker candidates. At the same time, much to the chagrin of McCarthy’s allies, they have been strident and unified in their growing list of demands: stop funding primaries against Republicans, take responsibility for the losses in the midterms, adopt the rules pressed by the Freedom Caucus, or just leave leadership altogether. 

In particular, the 20 hold grudges over how McCarthy and his allies treated them during the primaries by funding more moderate opponents, then financially bailing on them during the general election and leaving MAGA candidates to twist in the wind. The names Anthony Sabatini and Joe Kent—two MAGA-aligned House candidates targeted by McCarthy-aligned PACs and opposed by McCarthy-supported candidates—came up repeatedly during my conversations with the group. 

“Maybe, like, 10 years ago, you could run TV ads in somebody’s district saying, oh, you’re a Nazi, you want to murder people and all these other things, [then turn around and say] but that was just politics. I was joking, man,” said a MAGA operative close to the anti-Kevin vote. “People’s families see that, their friends see that, their neighbors see that. The media runs with it. A lot of the new generation of politicians, they don’t take those attacks lightly, and they don’t find them to be a joke. It’s kind of sick how heartless politics is, where you can run such vicious and nasty ads about somebody and then expect them to be kind to you.” 

Entreaties and olive branches, via the media or surrogates, have largely fallen flat. McCarthy world’s triumphalism on CNN and Fox News, and in Politico and Axios, intended to keep the McCarthy agnostics in line, aggravated some members who interpreted the chest-thumping as arrogant. It didn’t help that McCarthy preemptively moved his furniture into the Speaker’s office before securing their vote. 

Members were equally put off by articles purporting to highlight how McCarthy’s political operation had financially supported 17 of the 20 members who turned on him. In fact, as the strategist close to the 20 noted, the sum total of all of these donations, some dating back to 2008, were between $10,000 and $50,000 per candidate—too insultingly small to make up for the millions spent against them and their MAGA allies, or to make up for the cash that was withheld from them during the general. Luna, for instance, was the target of a $1.6 million oppo campaign from individual donors, according to the Washington Post, and received only $10,000 from McCarthy after winning her primary. “Oh, so now you want us to vote a certain way because someone gave us money,” added the source familiar with the Never Kevin negotiations. “Isn’t that the opposite of how you think Washington should work?”

“We’re Having Fun”

If McCarthy still wants to become speaker after all this, and still wants to court the 20, he’s going to have to trade away nearly all his power, both procedural and political, in exchange for the shiny gavel. “He would need to do something—not a gesture, because those are usually kind of empty—but there would need to be some moment where it became clear that he sees no other path and we know that he can be held accountable,” said the Never Kevin source. 

So far, McCarthy has made a few high-profile concessions in that direction. Late Wednesday night, for instance, McCarthy announced that he would drop the “motion to vacate” threshold to one, meaning that a vote of no confidence could be triggered by just one person, rather than half of the House. It was a demand that had been articulated in a letter sent by 13 Freedom Caucus members, and most prominently by Boebert, who told journalists that it was a non-negotiable condition of her support. The concession was immediately pitched to the media as a B.F.D. “[It’s] an amazing deal they’d be dumb to turn down,” a House G.O.P. source told Axios on Thursday morning. Separately, McCarthy reportedly offered to let his opponents select a third of the party’s members on the Rules Committee.

But the people I spoke to predicted that the single-vote “motion to vacate” wasn’t going to move the needle internally—several members of the 20 had referred to it as a “shiny object” when they first began strategizing in secret—and prior to McCarthy’s announcement, two people I spoke to seemed amenable to McCarthy’s initial counteroffer of five votes to trigger the motion. “I think that’s a totally reasonable thing,” said the MAGA operative. “If you can’t get five members of Congress to come together and say, Hey, this guy is not doing the job and we should get rid of him, then that’s on you.” 

More meaningful was the deal that McCarthy’s allies struck with the Club For Growth, the powerful lobbying group that had opposed his run, to keep the Congressional Leadership Fund out of any open Republican primaries—a deal received as a major concession that could bring some of the 20 closer to supporting McCarthy. The C.L.F., after all, had been one of the most powerful groups opposed to MAGA candidates during the primaries, and chopping off that $260 million-dollar arm of McCarthy’s power paves the way for more MAGA candidates. 

But the night before Thursday’s vote, the strategist close to the 20 predicted that these concessions would do nothing to change the bloc’s position. “Some of the members of the 20 are in a position now where, in order for the history books to show that they did anything, [the speaker] has to be another person. And that’s why I think that the rules, concessions and stuff has not really changed any of the dynamics.”

Indeed, as of the first roll call Thursday at noon, nothing had changed. Twenty Republicans, once again, voted against McCarthy—nearly all of them nominated Byron Donalds instead—while Victoria Spartz voted “present.” (Gaetz’s vote for Trump, I’m told, was a rebuke to Sean Hannity’s fiery interview with Boebert on Wednesday, when he accused her of being disloyal to the former president.) Scott Perry nearly missed his own protest vote after storming out of a meeting with McCarthy ally Tom Emmer, accusing McCarthy world of leaking the contents of their discussion before racing to the floor to vote for Donalds. Regardless, there are likely many more rounds to go before McCarthy, or his antagonists, bend to a new reality. For now, according to my conversations with allies of the 20, they’re dug in for the long haul. “It could go to next week. It could go to the week after,” a source with knowledge of the negotiations told me last night, seeming to enjoy the unfolding drama. “We’ll figure it out. We’re having fun.”