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.