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How Kevin McCarthy Could Lose The Election For Speaker Of The House


Rep. Kevin McCarthy is the obvious candidate for the next speaker of the House. Republicans flipped the chamber in 2022, and McCarthy is already House minority leader. He has no serious rivals, and former President Donald Trump has endorsed his bid

But McCarthy has a problem: He may not have the votes.

Republicans will start the 118th Congress with only a narrow majority in the House — just 222 seats to the Democrats’ 212. And six incoming Republican representatives have already said they will not vote for McCarthy for speaker. That would leave McCarthy with 216 votes at most — two shy of a majority. And that’s just the people who have publicly announced their opposition. (Several other Republicans are ideologically similar and could oppose him, too.) So this could be the first speaker election that has gone to multiple ballots since 1923

But don’t get too excited, Democrats: This isn’t an episode of The West Wing where a consensus candidate could become speaker with support from Republicans and Democrats. There are still several ways this ends with a Speaker McCarthy.

There are a few different tools we can use to categorize the political interests of members of Congress. First, there’s the partisan lean of their districts. Then, there’s the metric DW-NOMINATE, whose first dimension uses roll-call votes to place members of Congress on a spectrum from -1 (most liberal) to 1 (most conservative).

In 2019, 12 Democrats voted for someone other than Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker. According to these metrics, they were all ideologically moderate and hailed from competitive districts, suggesting that they voted against Pelosi because she was too liberal or it was politically disadvantageous to support her. 

Pelosi’s Democratic opponents were moderates

Democrats who voted for someone other than Nancy Pelosi for speaker in 2019, their district partisan leans at the time and how they score on the first dimension of DW-NOMINATE

Representative District Partisan Lean DW-NOM (1st Dim.)
Anthony Brindisi NY-22 R+12 -0.154
Jason Crow CO-06 D+2 -0.278
Joe Cunningham SC-01 R+18 -0.131
Jared Golden ME-02 R+8 -0.114
Ron Kind WI-03 R+4 -0.260
Conor Lamb PA-17 R+6 -0.142
Ben McAdams UT-04 R+19 -0.069
Kathleen Rice NY-04 D+9 -0.280
Max Rose NY-11 R+7 -0.176
Kurt Schrader OR-05 EVEN -0.182
Mikie Sherrill NJ-11 R+7 -0.206
Abigail Spanberger VA-07 R+5 -0.176
Average R+6 -0.181

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

The first dimension of DW-NOMINATE uses voting records to quantify the ideology of every member of Congress on a scale from 1 (most conservative) to -1 (most liberal).

Sources: Roll Call, VoteView

That is not the case for the six Republicans who say they won’t vote for McCarthy. They mostly hail from safely red seats and are staunchly conservative, suggesting they oppose McCarthy not because he is too far right but because he is not conservative enough

McCarthy’s Republican opponents are hard-core conservatives

Republicans who have said they will not support Kevin McCarthy for speaker, their district partisan leans, their DW-NOMINATE scores and whether they belong to the House Freedom Caucus

Representative District Partisan Lean DW-NOM (1st dim.) DW-NOM (2nd dim.) Freedom Caucus?
Mike Collins GA-10 R+31
Andy Biggs AZ-05 R+24 0.849 -0.528
Ralph Norman SC-05 R+26 0.841 -0.341
Bob Good VA-05 R+15 0.800 -0.600
Matt Rosendale MT-02 R+30 0.750 -0.515
Matt Gaetz FL-01 R+38 0.611 -0.640
Average R+27 0.770 -0.525

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

The first dimension of DW-NOMINATE uses voting records to quantify the ideology of every member of Congress on a scale from 1 (most conservative) to -1 (most liberal). The second dimension roughly quantifies how pro-establishment (1) or anti-establishment (-1) they are. Mike Collins does not have DW-NOMINATE scores because he was just elected in November.

Sources: News reports, VoteView, official House websites

But their opposition probably isn’t just based on ideology. The five incumbent members on this list have very negative scores on the second dimension of DW-NOMINATE, which roughly quantifies how establishment (positive numbers) or anti-establishment (negative numbers) a member of Congress is. Four of the five are also members of the House Freedom Caucus, essentially the governing wing of the old tea party — a very conservative group, notoriously hostile to the establishment and unwilling to compromise. 

McCarthy has been a member of House GOP leadership since 2009, so it makes sense that anti-establishment Republicans are keen to oppose him. Rep. Andy Biggs, also running for speaker, has practically confirmed this sentiment, saying, “Kevin McCarthy was created by, elevated by, and maintained by the establishment.”

And unfortunately for McCarthy, several more Republicans might agree with them. The next House will include 10 other Republicans who are either more conservative or anti-establishment (according to DW-NOMINATE) than at least one anti-McCarthy Republican. Three (Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Thomas Massie and Tom McClintock) say they intend to vote for McCarthy, but the other seven could be ripe to oppose him. For example, Rep. Chip Roy has yet to say whom he will support for speaker on the House floor. But he did nominate Biggs over McCarthy to be the GOP’s official nominee for speaker in a caucus meeting on Nov. 15.

These Republicans could also oppose McCarthy

House Republicans who are either more conservative or more anti-establishment than at least one Republican who opposes Kevin McCarthy for speaker, according to DW-NOMINATE, along with their district partisan leans and whether they belong to the House Freedom Caucus

Representative District Partisan Lean DW-NOM (1st dim.) DW-NOM (2nd dim.) Freedom Caucus?
Lauren Boebert CO-03 R+14 0.784 -0.594
Ken Buck CO-04 R+25 0.714 -0.425
Warren Davidson OH-08 R+27 0.667 -0.357
Paul Gosar AZ-09 R+33 0.697 -0.482
Andy Harris MD-01 R+25 0.671 -0.395
Scott Perry PA-10 R+9 0.664 -0.436
Chip Roy TX-21 R+25 0.800 -0.600

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

The first dimension of DW-NOMINATE uses voting records to quantify the ideology of every member of Congress on a scale from 1 (most conservative) to -1 (most liberal). The second dimension roughly quantifies how pro-establishment (1) or anti-establishment (-1) they are.

Sources: VoteView, news reports, official House websites

And the list of McCarthy opponents could be even longer because of new Republicans who were just elected in November. FiveThirtyEight canvassed all 41 Republican freshmen, and we identified just 17 who supported McCarthy for speaker: Reps.-elect Mark Alford, Carl Burlison, Lori Chavez-DeRemer, Anthony D’Esposito, Russell Fry, Wesley Hunt, John James, Tom Kean Jr., Jen Kiggans, Nick LaLota, Nick Langworthy, Mike Lawler, Laurel Lee, Andy Ogles, George Santos and Brandon Williams as well as Rep. Rudy Yakym

Others either didn’t respond to our inquiries or said they were still making up their mind. For example, in an email, Rep.-elect Anna Paulina Luna told FiveThirtyEight, “I will vote on January 3rd for whoever allows me to best represent my constituents… I do not like to publicly disclose my private conversations with my colleagues.” And a spokesperson for Rep.-elect Josh Brecheen told us he “has not taken a decided position on speaker, but is praying and considering all information.” (Both Brecheen and Luna, by the way, were elected with help from the House Freedom Caucus.)

But all this doesn’t mean McCarthy is doomed. He may not have 218 votes right now, but there’s no obvious alternative to him, either. So the likeliest outcome may be that he wins the speakership after putting in a little elbow grease. According to Axios, McCarthy has been meeting with some of his detractors. And while four have told reporters that nothing will change their minds, the other two may be more malleable. Rep. Matt Rosendale told Puck News he would vote for McCarthy in “extreme circumstances,” which means that there are some circumstances in which he would vote for him. Meanwhile, Rep.-elect Mike Collins pledged to vote against McCarthy in September 2021 when he launched his campaign. His spokesperson has not responded to multiple inquiries about whether he will keep his promise.

McCarthy has another reason for optimism: Technically, he doesn’t even need 218 votes to become speaker. He needs only a majority of the votes cast for a named candidate. So if some members skip the vote or abstain (in House parlance, vote “present”), it would lower the number he needs to hit. Biggs, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Rep. Bob Good, Rep. Ralph Norman and Rosendale have all said they will not vote “present.” Still, that could be a way for them to not oppose McCarthy without saying they changed their mind. So McCarthy could win the speakership if three of his opponents (including Democrats!) skip the vote or vote “present,” assuming every other Republican votes for him.

As messy as these scenarios would be, they are still likelier than the Democratic dream scenario that some moderate Republicans would work with Democrats to elect a compromise candidate. The last time a majority party failed to elect a speaker was 1839, when Democrats held the House majority but party infighting led to the election of Whig Rep. Robert M.T. Hunter with bipartisan support. It’s unlikely that that streak will break when the two parties are actively hostile toward each other and the furthest apart ideologically that they have been in at least 50 years. 

The official nominee of the party that controls the House has won every speaker election since at least 1913, even when its majority was narrower than it is now. So it may not be smooth sailing, but Republicans will likely get their preferred speaker one way or another. Kevin McCarthy is just hoping it’s him.



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