The 20 Republicans who opposed Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker of the House had something in common before Tuesday’s drama: They are very conservative and scorn the Republican Party establishment.
As you probably know by now, the 118th Congress began on Tuesday, and the election for speaker of the House — usually a mere formality — failed to produce a first-ballot winner for the first time since 1923. McCarthy needed a majority of the votes cast — in this case, 218. Since the GOP’s majority in the new House is just 222 members compared with the Democrats’ 212, McCarthy could afford only four defections from within the Republican caucus (assuming all Democrats voted against him). Last month, we identified six Republicans who had publicly come out against McCarthy, so we had an inkling that this vote would be tight. But then, on the House floor on Tuesday, a whopping 19 Republicans voted against McCarthy on the first and second ballots. And then Rep.-elect1 Byron Donalds joined them on the third ballot to make an even 20.
Though the number was somewhat surprising, the roster of McCarthy’s opponents wasn’t. The Republicans who voted against him were, on average, more conservative than 98 percent of the 117th Congress (if they served in it) and more anti-establishment than 93 percent, according to DW-NOMINATE, a political-science metric that uses roll-call votes to measure the ideology of members of Congress.2 (The first dimension of DW-NOMINATE quantifies how liberal or conservative a politician is and the second dimension corresponds to how closely aligned they are to the party establishment.) In other words, the faction that rebelled against McCarthy was ultraconservative and clearly uninterested in handing power to a man who has been part of House GOP leadership since 2009.
|Representative||District||Partisan Lean||DW-NOM percentile (1st dim.)||DW-NOM percentile (2nd dim.)|
|Anna Paulina Luna*||FL-13||R+12||—||—|
Interestingly, unlike the Democrats who voted against former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2019 — who hailed exclusively from competitive districts — McCarthy’s foes tend to come from solidly red turf. Only three of the 20 were elected in districts with FiveThirtyEight partisan leans3 bluer than R+15, suggesting they aren’t opposing McCarthy for electoral reasons. In addition, 14 of the 20 belong to the House Freedom Caucus, an obstructionist group within the House aligned with the tea party. And it’s likely that after the House gets organized, at least some of the newly elected anti-McCarthy voters, Reps.-elect Josh Brecheen, Eli Crane, Anna Paulina Luna and Andy Ogles, will join the House Freedom Caucus since the group’s PAC endorsed each of them.
There were a few surprises in Tuesday’s vote, though. First, Ogles’s vote against McCarthy was a reversal of his previous position. In September, he told Politico that he planned to support McCarthy, who had “earned the right to lead the caucus.” And Rep.-elect Mike Collins went the opposite direction. The conservative Georgian, also supported by the Freedom Caucus’s PAC, pledged at the start of his campaign to vote against McCarthy for speaker, but he broke that promise on Tuesday.
There were also several extremely conservative, anti-establishment Republicans who broke with their compatriots and voted for McCarthy, such as Reps.-elect Ken Buck, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan. Greene has been a defender of McCarthy as she has attempted to build influence within the GOP. Meanwhile, Jordan, the Freedom Caucus’s founding chairman, called for the party to come together while nominating McCarthy for speaker on the second ballot. His support was especially ironic since McCarthy’s 20 opponents voted for him on the third ballot.
The question everyone has now, of course, is what happens next. McCarthy’s detractors are not softening their opposition. Indeed, they managed to grow their numbers between the second and third ballots. McCarthy, meanwhile, has insisted he will not step aside. But that hasn’t stopped speculation that Republicans will eventually coalesce around a compromise candidate, like Rep.-elect Steve Scalise, who was slated to be McCarthy’s deputy. Given all we know, something will have to fundamentally change for the House to get a speaker anytime soon. We’ll find out if it has on Wednesday at noon Eastern Time when the House is scheduled to return.