The Race for House Speaker Is Kevin McCarthy’s to Lose

Kevin McCarthy (at center-left in photograph) and Steve Scalise are no longer rivals for the job of succeeding Paul Ryan — for the present, at least. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

While it reflected a position that Steve Scalise has been expressing privately for a while, a formal statement on Fox News from U.S. Representative Steve Scalise made it official today: “I’ve never run against Kevin, and wouldn’t run against Kevin.”

“Kevin,” of course, is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, who is one step above Majority Whip Scalise on the House GOP leadership ladder. And the “run” is for the top position held by Speaker Paul Ryan, who announced yesterday he would hand over his gavel and retire from Congress at the end of his current term.

While it may be a distinction without a difference, Scalise did not say he was backing McCarthy’s elevation, though Ryan was quick to suggest that was what he intended in eschewing a contest. The general feeling up until now has been that Scalise will stand by and see if McCarthy can get the House GOP conference behind him. In the Californian’s last run for the speakership, in 2015, he couldn’t, which led to the “draft Ryan” movement that eventually lifted the 2012 veep nominee to the job.

It is entirely possible, and even likely, that McCarthy’s done enough outreach to conservatives since then to get him over the top, particularly given his close relationship with Donald J. Trump, who calls him “my Kevin.” So it’s McCarthy’s race to lose, once you recognize that it’s possible he might.

An interesting variable, though, is timing. Ryan expressed an interest in staying right where he is until January of next year, which means prospective successors wouldn’t know if they were signing on for the speakership or the far less exciting gig of Minority Leader. But Axios is reporting that a lot of influential people want to get the question of the succession out of the way much earlier:

One source close to leadership told us: “Scuttlebutt is that Paul will have to step down from speakership soon. Members won’t follow a lame duck, he’ll have no leverage to cut deals, and the last thing they need in this environment is 6 months of palace intrigue and everyone stabbing everyone else in the back.”

An earlier transfer of power would benefit McCarthy in two ways: it would reduce the possibility that a bad November could shake up the leadership race (you have to figure a debacle would eliminate more of the moderate-to-Establishment-conservative types who are McCarthy’s base than skeptical hard-core conservatives who probably prefer Scalise), and it would guarantee he goes down in the history books as a Speaker, not a Speaker-wannabe. But on the other hand, it would leave McCarthy less time to consolidate his support.

It’s one of those situations where calm unity in public could disguise some pretty serious jockeying for position in the background. But for now, life looks good for Kevin McCarthy.

The Race for House Speaker Is Kevin McCarthy’s to Lose