Kevin McCarthy’s Ironic Downfall

Rep. Kevin McCarthy holds a press conference after being ousted as speaker of the House on October 3, 2023. (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Happy Wednesday! Before Mike gets back from vacation, we’re taking quick action to nominate him as the next speaker of the House.

Up to Speed

  • California Republican Kevin McCarthy was deposed as House speaker Tuesday afternoon in a 216-210 vote, with eight Republicans crossing the aisle to vote alongside every Democrat. It was the first time in U.S. history a speaker has been booted through a “motion to vacate” vote. Despite initial comments from scattered House Democrats suggesting they might help McCarthy protect the gavel, Democrats decided Tuesday morning they would vote unanimously to remove him, citing his lack of principle and repeated concessions to his party’s hard-right flank. Although many Republicans vowed to continue supporting him, the former speaker said Tuesday night he would not stand again for the job.
  • In the wake of the vote, Republican leadership retaliated against Democrats’ support for the measure with several small symbolic moves, evicting several former Democratic leaders, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, from their Capitol hideaway offices just off the House floor. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus seems to be on life support: Republican members, enraged at their Democratic colleagues’ unwillingness to bail McCarthy out, are reportedly threatening to leave the group en masse.
  • Gov. Glenn Youngkin raised $7.45 million in the third quarter for his effort to lead a Republican takeover of the Virginia General Assembly in next month’s legislative elections, his political team tells The Dispatch. The GOP is defending a thin majority in the state House of Representatives and needs to flip four Democratic-held seats to capture the Virginia Senate. “Gov. Youngkin is all in on making Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family,” his adviser, Dave Rexrode, says in a statement. Youngkin has been raising the money from wealthy GOP donors who hope a strong showing in the Old Dominion’s off-year elections will encourage the governor to mount a late bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
  • Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat giving up her House seat to run for Senate in Michigan, raised $3 million in the third quarter and has grown her war chest to $5 million, The Messenger reports. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the incumbent Democrat, is retiring in 2024. The Republican primary is expected to be spirited.
  • No Labels, the well-funded nonpartisan group making tentative plans to field a third-party unity presidential ticket, is asking the Democratic Party to stop working against its effort to get on the ballot in states that allow for it, the Associated Press reports. “We urge you to tell your state and national leadership that you will not participate in actions that threaten the very principles of liberty and freedom that are the bedrock of our democracy,” No Labels writes in an open letter to thousands of Democratic state and county leaders across the country.
  • With inflation vexing voters and polls showing Republicans hold their biggest advantage over Democrats on the economy in a generation, President Joe Biden’s campaign is out with a new television advertisement touting legislation he signed to lower the price of insulin for seniors and “investing in American-made clean energy to lower power costs for families.” The spot is running in Phoenix, the main media market in the key battleground state of Arizona.

McCarthy Out

In the end, Kevin McCarthy met his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.

To become speaker of a razor-thin and fractious Republican House majority, McCarthy—always more of an institutionalist and relationships guy than an ideological firebrand—made himself a supplicant to his party’s hard-right flank. He sacrificed much of the institutional power of the office to meet the demands of the House Freedom Caucus and gave its members an outsize presence on congressional committees. After initially denouncing the Capitol riot on January 6, he famously traveled to Mar-a-Lago to mend fences with Donald Trump. And he regularly bowed to the wishes of conference malcontents on House strategy—most notably by opening an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden last month.

It wasn’t enough. The “motion to vacate” mechanism McCarthy had resurrected in his bid to win Freedom Caucus support was the mechanism Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida used to remove him. Trump stood by silently until the defenestration was complete. And Democrats cited McCarthy’s repeated concessions to his party’s wooliest members as part of their rationale for declining to protect him from Gaetz’s revolt.   

“It is now the responsibility of the GOP members to end the House Republican Civil War,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries wrote in a statement released before the vote. “Given their unwillingness to break from MAGA extremism in an authentic and comprehensive manner, House Democratic leadership will vote yes on the pending Republican Motion to Vacate the Chair.”

It was only the latest example of the overriding phenomenon of today’s Republican politics. The more the party veers rightward, the more it hemorrhages support outside its true-believing base—which, perversely, only strengthens that base’s most zealous agitators in intraparty matters. 

As Cook Political Report elections guru Dave Wasserman pointed out Tuesday, McCarthy found himself in such a weak negotiating position in part because of the Matt Gaetz types who lost congressional races in 2022, making Republicans’ advantage in the House even slimmer. From Sarah Palin in Alaska’s at-large district to John Gibbs in Michigan to Joe Kent in Washington to Bo Hines in North Carolina, the story was the same: Republicans in winnable districts nominated base-pleasing candidates who drove away moderates and then face-planted in the general election.

What comes next is unclear, except to say it will be one big mess. There’s a reason McCarthy eventually slogged his way to the speakership in the first place: Whatever else you could say about him, he was as close to a real consensus candidate as this fragmented Republican House is likely to get. In the wake of his departure, Republicans are running in divergent directions to find his replacement. Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, suggested to reporters Tuesday that the next speaker might need to be selected with the help of Democrats.

“It’s going to be hard to get—you’ve got to get to 218, with five to 10 folks who will never really want to be part of the party,” Bacon said at the Capitol after the vote. “And even if they find someone, they’ll hold this over their head every month. I have always thought that we should have gone in a more bipartisan spirit.”

Some have other ideas. “The only candidate for Speaker I am currently supporting,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene posted on Twitter Tuesday night, “is President Donald J. Trump.”

McCarthy Ouster Clips Wings of GOP Fundraising

When Rep. Steve Womack announced the results of the ouster from the House dais, pronouncing the office of the speaker to be vacant, the first audible response in the chamber was an exclamation from Rep. Richard Hudson: “Damn.”

Hudson has particular reason to be displeased. The North Carolina Republican chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the elections arm of the House Republican Conference. So he knows better than most that McCarthy’s downfall was also the downfall of the House GOP’s most reliable money-raising machine.

“He is the engine driving House Republicans’ fundraising,” one NRCC source told The Dispatch ahead of the vote, calling the ouster “a heavy blow.”

McCarthy has long enjoyed a reputation as a heavyweight fundraiser—his connections to a lucrative California donor base were front and center during his first short-lived speaker bid in 2015—and he has routinely smashed fundraising records in recent years. Becoming speaker only increased his reach: The $38 million he brought in during the first quarter of this year was the largest ever quarterly haul for a House Republican. In the third quarter that ended Saturday, the Congressional Leadership Fund and the American Action Network—McCarthy’s aligned super PAC and political nonprofit, respectively—raked in a combined $48 million, including $26 million in September alone.

McCarthy and his network of political groups have been spreading that largesse around, too, donating tens of millions of dollars to national and state party efforts and to the campaigns of individual candidates. A new speaker might be able to step into McCarthy’s shoes, the NRCC source said, but “not immediately and not in time to make up lost ground before the ’24 elections.”

It also makes McCarthy’s humiliation Tuesday all the more ironic: Half of the eight Republicans who voted to unseat him were candidates his political operation had spent millions to help elect in the first place. The most striking example was Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, whom McCarthy helped get through a contentious primary against a Trump-backed challenger in last year’s midterms.

“A lot of them I helped get elected, so I probably should’ve picked somebody else,” McCarthy said Tuesday night when asked if he could have done anything to sway their opposition.

In some ways, the fight between McCarthy and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, the ringleader of the rebellion, represented the clash between the old and new guards of GOP fundraising: a network of deep-pocketed cash cows on the one side, a reliance on eye-grabbing viral stunts to capture the attention of small-dollar donors on the other.

During the hour of debate before Tuesday’s vote, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana castigated Gaetz for fundraising off the fight, brandishing a campaign text message on his cell phone at the podium. “Text messages saying, ‘Give me money, I filed a motion to vacate,” Graves sneered. “Using official actions to raise money. It’s disgusting. It’s what is disgusting about Washington.”

 “The only way I’m able to advance my political goals is just regular folks give me 10, 20, 30 dollars,” Gaetz countered later in an appearance on Fox News. “So I will take no lecture from the likes of people who do three lobbyist fundraisers a day and trade favors in order to get cash from special interests on how I raise money.” 

Ramaswamy’s Re-Reset

Just one week ago, Vivek Ramaswamy was on stage at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California, assuring his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination that he believes they’re all “good people.” It was a notable shift from his rhetoric during the first debate in August, during which he’d denounced them all as “bought and paid for.” 

The kinder, friendlier turn was short-lived. On Tuesday, the wealthy biotech entrepreneur was back to accusing his opponents of being “establishment puppets” who are doing the bidding of unnamed super PACs. But this time, Ramaswamy went further. He is now calling on the Republican National Committee to block all but the four top-polling contenders from the next televised Republican debate, tentatively scheduled for November 8 in Miami. 

“Instead of allowing open dialogue and the airing of ideas to give primary voters a real choice, the Establishment would rather cut backroom deals and offer up phony debates including candidates with no viable path and questions that no voter would ever ask,” Ramaswamy said in a statement. “The Establishment was hellbent on taking down Trump. Now they’re hellbent on propping up their favored puppets. We won’t let them get away with it.”

A Ramaswamny campaign spokesman confirms that his definition of a candidate “with no viable path” includes those polling fifth or lower. 

As of Tuesday evening, Ramaswamy was in the fourth position nationally in the RealClearPolitics average, garnering 5.2 percentage points. He was trailing former President Donald Trump (56.5 percent;) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (13.7 percent;) and Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (6.9 percent.) Ramaswamy is running fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and sixth in South Carolina.

Ramaswamny’s angry statement came after the RNC put the kibosh on a mini-debate with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that was scheduled to air Wednesday evening on Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier. The RNC warned both candidates they would be prevented from participating in the third GOP presidential debate if they did not back out. They relented, agreeing instead to separate interviews. Christie also was unhappy. (Under RNC rules, the national party has sole discretion to sanction candidate debates and forums.)

But it wasn’t necessarily the dustup with the RNC that motivated Ramaswamy to complain that the other Republicans running for president are establishment toadies beholden to their wealthy financiers. The “bought and paid for” remark, made during the first debate in Milwaukee, had sparked such a backlash that he sought to soften his remarks at the second debate. But less than an hour after that debate, Ramaswamy was basically back to calling them, if not “bought and paid for,” then manipulated dupes. 

“As I’ve gotten to know some of these people, I think they are good people who have been tainted by a broken system,” Ramaswamy said in the Simi Valley spin room. “And I think my anger and my frustration is now less directed against any one of those candidates, but against that system—that broken system of super PAC puppetry.”

“That’s not even the fault of good people on that stage,” he added. “Some of them are being exploited by that system.”

Notable and Quotable

“We need to make some rules changes, no doubt about it. Bottom line, we need to make these eight irrelevant.”

—Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska to reporters on the “motion to vacate” rule, October 3, 2023

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