We Need to Talk About Kevin

kevin mccarthy
Those five “Never Kevin” votes metastasized into 19 in the first and second rounds, and then 20 in the third. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
January 3, 2023

Yes, it was supposed to be bad for Kevin McCarthy, but not this bad. 

As anyone who has been reading my dispatches since September well knows, McCarthy’s speakership only ever seemed fully secured among card-carrying members of the conventional wisdom class, those who recited and repeated to one another the familiar consensual hallucinations of the day: that hardline “No” voters Andy Biggs, Ralph Norman and Matt Rosendale could be bargained with; that Donald Trump pushed for McCarthy; and so forth. Even former House Freedom Caucus leader Mick Mulvaney recalled to me how, back in his day, hardliners had wimped out at the very last minute during his attempted coup against John Boehner, in 2013. Mulvaney thought the Never Kevins would lose their mettle when it came down to shouting another name on the floor. 

As they courted conservative media icons, McCarthy’s team reciprocated the false courage. They insisted that it was all under control—those five persnickety “No” votes, the “saboteurs” as Mark Levin dubbed them, would eventually get with the program. McCarthy, the ultimate vote whipper, would make the math work. And yet it turns out, of course, that the situation was far bleaker than they ever let on. “It’s a big black eye for Republicans. We come into office, we can’t govern or pick a speaker,” said a senior Hill Republican. “It’s complete chaos.” 

Those five Never Kevin votes metastasized into 19 in the first and second rounds and then 20 in the third. And even if this historic House vote becomes an endurance test, the momentum is moving away from the heir apparent, who appears increasingly boxed in. McCarthy may feel that he’s earned this job, as he announced behind closed doors this morning, but offering any further concessions could be fatal—as would be fecklessly enduring subsequent votes that would only serve to weaken the party. McCarthy, after all, has failed to conceal his naked ambition, and was rejected by the same House Freedom Caucus for speaker in 2015 because of it. Instead, they backed Paul Ryan even though McCarthy was next in line after Boehner was ousted. Now, McCarthy can’t be seen placing his ambitions above the general interests of the party, thereby playing right into his enemies’ hands. 

It’s been a bewitching day of vote-counting, the ultimate procedural act that can reduce Washington to its primal high school roots. And throughout the process, ten timely truths, curiosities and startling realities have emerged about McCarthy, his party, and the next skirmish that’s about to break out.

I. Trump Has Truly Lost His Juice

One of the cruel ironies of all this is that McCarthy, who went to extraordinary lengths to placate Trump, is being stymied by card-carrying members of his MAGA movement. And where is Trump in McCarthy’s hour of need? Actually, I’m told from sources close to him that he’s been burning up the phone for McCarthy, but his pleas don’t seem to be making any impact. Even Trump loyalist Matt Gaetz hasn’t been moved. Instead, I’m told, the recipients of Trump’s calls have rebutted his request to support Kevin with relentless flirtation and flattery, Trump’s ultimate love language, such as suggesting that he should be speaker. Naturally, this deactivated and neutralized the ‘24 presidential candidate.

Truthfully, Trump doesn’t really care who leads the House. But he’s a Republican candidate for president trying to prove that he’s the leader of the party, so he had to weigh in, even if those close to him wished he didn’t. Is this all a sign that the MAGA movement has advanced beyond Trump, and even beyond Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan, who support McCarthy? Unclear. But it is a sign that Trump has lost his juice. “He likes the perks of being party leader, but he doesn’t take the responsibility seriously at all,” said a former Trump advisor who believes that a more motivated former commander-in-chief could have quelled the McCarthy rebellion with a sit-down at Mar-a-Lago. “He doesn’t give a crap. He’s not engaged enough. He should have fixed this instead of trading cards and playing golf.” 

Indeed, Kaitlan Collins is reporting that Trump told McCarthy to accept the House Freedom Caucus’ hostage demands on Monday night. That’s some negotiating. 

II. Pro-Kevin Forces Are Turning On Scalise

You know the humming for Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s No. 2, is growing louder when pro-McCarthy allies have floated talking points against him—such as, rather impotently, the duration of time that he supported Liz Cheney. This reflects a criticism that the Freedom Caucus had laid upon McCarthy for supporting her reelection to Conference Chair after her fatal impeachment vote following January 6. Now the Kevinites are saying that Scalise supported her even longer, even though his office put out a statement at the time saying that he supported Elise Stefanik for conference chair.  

They are also floating questions about Scalise’s record on amnesty. These points are all designed to convince the “Never Kevins” that Scalise is not a better option. In fairness, his voting record is pretty similar to that of McCarthy. But Congress, like high school, is a popularity contest and Scalise might be the homecoming king. 

III. Scalise Politesse

There are some risks to being the next guy up: If you’re Scalise, you don’t want to be that candidate—the one who jumps in if McCarthy takes his name off the ballot and dares another member to try to get to 218. That person likely won’t get those numbers because the “Only Kevins” will vote against them, perhaps in an attempt to prove that the party can’t be held hostage. That puts McCarthy back on the ballot.

But if McCarthy loses again in another round, all signs suggest that it would be an ideal (or overdue) time to determine a consensus candidate. “If I’m Scalise, I want to see someone lose, I want to see the ‘Only Kevins’ knock that person down, and then you get in again after McCarthy loses the second time,” said a person close to House conservatives. 

IV. Scalise Politesse, Part II

What will Scalise have to bargain away to become speaker? As I reported recently from a source with knowledge of the “Never Kevin” deliberations, their issue with McCarthy is about trust. They simply don’t like the guy, and they don’t believe him, which is why they want to be able to trigger a motion to oust him from the chair—the infamous “motion to vacate” maneuver—with just one vote. 

But I’m told they won’t push for such a low threshold with Scalise. Gaetz, the leader of the hardest-core faction of the Never Kevins, has already made it clear to the New York Post, and others privately, that he would support Scalise as a unity candidate. So what, pray tell, will they demand from Scalise in exchange? 

Likely all of the rule changes they extracted from McCarthy, plus they may also want a say in whomever replaces Scalise as Majority Leader. Would they demand that Scalise support Jim Jordan? Maybe Majority Whip Tom Emmer, who Andy Biggs supported for Majority Whip during the second round?

V. The Scalisites

So, who else stands to win from a Scalise speakership? Well, the House Freedom Caucus, because they are able to flex their muscle and take out a speaker-in-waiting. After all, this isn’t a crew that really cares about committee spots or legislating; this is about perceived power. But there are a number of allies of Steve Scalise who can stand to benefit if he becomes speaker, like Rep. Jodey Arrington, who wants to be House Budget Chairman. Scalise is also close with Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate who is on the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus. He’s also tight with Reps. Diana Harshbarger, Austin Scott and Mario Díaz-Balart. But, being whip, he’s built out alliances across the conference. 

VI. The Conservative Media Lost Its Mojo

One interesting media subplot of this revolt: The more that Fox personalities and conservative radio pundits personally hammered Gaetz and Biggs for defying McCarthy, the more those saboteurs dug in. In fact, as I reported last week, Biggs has been fundraising off his speakership revolt antics. Likely they understand that Congress is a universally despised institution among Republicans and anyone who leads it can easily be spun to voters as part of the problem. 

McCarthy, in many ways, is the political avatar of the modern right wing media machine: conservative, tolerant of the loonies in the party, and fully capable of trying to leverage them while still whispering sweet murmurs into the ears of Chamber of Commerce types. This new renegade rejects not only him, but also the umbilical media operations that fed him. 

VII. The Dems Are Licking Their Knives

Democrats are reveling in what they see as a national embarrassment of the Republican party. And if there’s any hope of wearing them out, you can bet against it. More than 40 Democrats would need to give in to the urge to sleep or go back to their districts this weekend (if the vote goes that long) to give McCarthy any hope that the threshold for the majority could be lowered. (To minimize the number of Republicans needed to win the majority by one vote, two Democrats need to abstain from voting or vote present.) It’s a far-fetched possibility for what is becoming a running infomercial for their rival’s incompetence. 

VIII. The Byron Donalds Red Herring

The later this goes, the more you’re going to hear McCarthy supporters say it’s time to look for a unity candidate. So far, we’ve only heard it from Byron Donalds, a popular member who won 74 votes in the race for conference chair against Stefanik. He was the 20th “No” for McCarthy, an indication that his support is waning. Expect to hear more of this, and when that chorus happens, it will be hard for McCarthy to argue that he’s the only logical candidate. Donalds suggested that the conference needs to huddle to find the next candidate rather than continuing to air out their grievances in public. 

IX. The Tao of the Never Kevins

So far, this has become an endurance test for both “Never Kevins” and “Only Kevins.” If 20 members continue to vote for anyone but McCarthy, it’s a matter of when the “Only Kevins” give in to the “Never Kevins.” Notably, those “Only Kevins,” who say they will vote for him no matter the numbers, didn’t ask for anything in return for their support, unlike the “Never Kevins” who were offered a plethora of rule changes, like lowering the motion to vacate to five votes or being able to defund investigations. 

This makes me think they won’t endure as long as the Never Kevins, and eventually moderates will have to explain to McCarthy how this is hurting the entire party politically at home with the voters, and that they need another candidate—either Scalise or maybe even Stefanik. At some point, people close to Scalise will have to urge him to begin exploring that option, though he can’t be seen publicly making any move until McCarthy bows out. “It really comes down to who is in the best position to get people who are ‘Nos’ right now,” said a senior Hill source, and that person looks like Scalise. 

X. McCarthy’s Gamble

All eyes are on McCarthy’s camp to see if they have one last political trick up their sleeve. Maybe he completely capitulates to the House Freedom Caucus and takes all of their demands, like Trump suggested. As of right now, even those close to him have no idea what he will do. But many were surprised to see him even agreeing to a recess, because time off the House floor gives his rivals time to organize. He’s been hellbent against it, believing that creating a pressure cooker would work to his benefit. But it may also be a sign that McCarthy knows he’s close to the end of the line. 

There’s been some chatter about changing the threshold from a majority of votes to a plurality vote, but that would be dangerous for Republicans, because by that standard, Hakeem Jeffries would have technically already won the speakership three times today. Everyone agrees that McCarthy’s performance this morning at the conference meeting, when he shouted at the Never Kevins that he deserved to be speaker, only cemented their opposition. So for the next 16 or so hours, the bullying tactics just won’t work. Don Bacon’s comments in the past hour, comparing the 20 holdouts to the Taliban, also further angered the Never Kevins. But regardless of what McCarthy and his allies do next, there’s a feeling that something will break by tomorrow afternoon.