House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s plan to put Republicans back in the majority and himself in the speaker’s office is as audaciously risky as any major political endeavor we’ve seen in recent memory. A guy who got to the top of the House Republican conference by playing it safe while his peers—Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, and John Boehner—took risks is now gambling on a midterm strategy that borders on reckless.
All Republicans need to do to win back the House is be a normal, acceptable alternative to the party in power—a task made easier by the determined radicalism of many Democrats. But McCarthy is trying out-radical the radicals. The ambitious Californian just made his second pilgrimage to kiss the ring of former President Donald Trump and then went on television to brag about his obeisance. Meanwhile, McCarthy is working overtime to block the probe into the January 6 pro-Trump riot aimed at overturning the 2020 election result. He also found time to delegate one of his fringiest, cringiest lieutenants to investigate whether a cable news host is being spied on by Big Brother. It’s bizarre behavior for a party leader whose main job for the next 476 days is to convince persuadable voters that Republicans are a safe bet. Tip O’Neill didn’t lead Democrats to a 26-seat gain in 1982 by campaigning for a restoration of Jimmy Carter, nor did Newt Gingrich make 1994 a nostalgia trip for George H.W. Bush. So what the heck is McCarthy doing?
The irony is that he walked out onto this ledge backward. McCarthy got to be Republican leader by taking the easy way out and accommodating the kookiest, crankiest members of his conference, the same folks Boehner used to refer to as “the chuckleheads.” That makes McCarthy a captive leader. He gained power by cosseting the radicals when other potential GOP leaders sought to impose some order, but now finds himself a caged bird. No rational political actor would take the enormous risk McCarthy is by aligning the House GOP so closely with an unpopular former president and the increasingly loopy nationalist wing of his party. But in his quest for the speakership, McCarthy probably doesn’t have any choice.
Midterm elections are referenda on the party in power, and usually unfavorable ones. Since 1938, every president other than Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002 have seen their party lose House seats in midterm elections. There are four special elections scheduled this year to fill vacancies, only one of which looks to be even slightly competitive. Assuming no flips in the specials, that would put the House at 223 Democrats and 212 Republicans, an 11-seat margin. But last year ended in a zero, which means a census and redistricting. We don’t know exactly how the new districts will play out, but the Dems are definitely the worse off, with a net loss of three seats from blue states and a net gain of three seats for red states. If redistricting really did cause a six-seat swing, that would be enough by itself to put the GOP over the top by one seat.
Things probably won’t work out so neatly, but suffice it to say that Republicans need a ripple, not a wave, to retake the House. The same goes for the evenly divided Senate. Many—maybe even most—of the competitive House districts will be in the suburbs, home to the same voters who made Joe Biden president last year. These more-affluent, college-educated voters would be receptive to economic and fiscal overtures, especially given what we’re seeing with deficit spending and inflation. Democrats are also vulnerable to allegations of excessive wokeism and to concerns about increases to violent crime rates. For a rational Republican Party, this would be a great issue set. The last thing the GOP should want to do is put the unpopular former Republican president front and center. And yet …
And it’s not as if Trump is a typical ex-president. He is fanatically devoted to trying to show that he actually somehow won the 2020 election, the very same claims that cost Republicans two Senate seats in Georgia in January. Not only will this batty business strike swing voters as more than a little unserious, it shows a dreadful inability to focus on issues that matter to voters. There are House and Senate seats on the line in many of the states like Arizona in which Republicans are still caught in the eddy of the 2020 defeat. Between wacky claims about election fraud and Republican lawmakers pounding their spoons on their high chairs for mostly unnecessary and sometimes dangerous election law changes, persuadable voters could easily be convinced that the GOP is unserious and not a good risk for midterms.
So why isn’t McCarthy just laying low, raising money, and trying to keep the focus on the current president instead of the former one? That’s where his interests diverge from those of his party’s. For all of his appeasements, McCarthy isn’t really trusted by the aforementioned chuckleheads. They would much rather have one of their own, like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, in the top slot. But those same members fear and love Trump more than the rest of the conference—they are even more obedient to Trump than McCarthy is to their demands. It would be good for House Republicans to be less closely associated with Trump in voters’ minds, but McCarthy needs Trump’s support to prevent a mutiny by the nationalist right. McCarthy’s bet is that the GOP will retake the House anyway and that he’ll finally get the gavel.
He may end up being right, but he is subjecting his party to an astonishing amount of risk in pursuit of his own ambitions.