House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is hoping all’s well that ends well when it comes to becoming speaker of the chamber. The current minority leader and former majority leader may have thought he’d have the speakership locked up by now, but, ahead of the new Congress that begins on Tuesday, he doesn’t.
McCarthy’s problems in securing the top spot in the House are more easily understood when you realize the hand he’s been dealt. He has a historically small majority for a potential first-time speaker, and McCarthy, himself, is historically unpopular compared with other House members who have tried to become speaker.
McCarthy’s Republican Party secured only 222 seats in the 2022 midterms, leaving him little room for error to get to 218 votes – the number needed to achieve the speakership assuming all members vote. McCarthy can only afford to lose the support of four Republicans, and the list of GOP lawmakers who’ve said they will vote against him is longer than that.
A historic problem
No potential first-time House speaker has had such a small majority since Democrat John Nance Garner in 1931. The only first-time speaker in recent times who comes close to McCarthy’s current situation is former Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert, whose Republican Party entered 1999 with 223 seats. Hastert had the advantage of being a compromise choice after Newt Gingrich stepped down after the 1998 midterms and his would-be successor Bob Livingston resigned following revelations of an extramarital affair.
Indeed, all other potential first-time House speakers in the last 90 years had at least 230 seats in their majority. Speakers whose party held fewer seats than that all had the power of incumbency (i.e., having been elected to the position at least once before).
Remember that McCarthy has been close to the speakership before. He was next in line to become speaker when Republican John Boehner resigned in 2015. But the California Republican couldn’t get his caucus to rally around him enough to win a majority of House votes, and Paul Ryan went on to become speaker instead.
McCarthy had a lot more votes to work with back then – 245 GOP-held seats, more than any potential first-time speaker in the past 30 years. If he couldn’t get the 218 votes then under much more favorable circumstances, one might wonder how he can get to 218 now?
Polling provides somewhat of an answer to this question and helps explain why McCarthy has been facing an uphill battle in the first place.
A CNN/SSRS poll last month found that his net favorable (i.e. favorable minus unfavorable) rating was +30 points among Republicans. That’s certainly not bad. (Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has notoriously low ratings among Republicans.) But a net favorability rating of +30 points isn’t really good either.
Another way to frame it: McCarthy is liked by Republicans, but far from beloved. There’s no groundswell of support from the grassroots demanding he become speaker.
McCarthy has the second-lowest net favorability rating among his own party members of all first-time potential speakers in the last 28 years. Only Gingrich’s +24 points in late 1994 was lower. Others such as Boehner (in late 2010) and Nancy Pelosi (in late 2006) had net favorability ratings above +50 points among the party faithful.
The good news for McCarthy is that he’s much better liked now than he was in late 2015 when his net favorability among Republicans was just +2 points. Back then, Republicans had a much more politically attractive choice in Ryan.
The former vice presidential nominee had a net favorability rating of +48 points among Republicans.
The biggest problem Republican foes of McCarthy have right now is that there’s no Ryan. There isn’t a well-known and well-liked Republican waiting in the wings if McCarthy fails. It’s difficult to beat something with nothing.
Under such a circumstance, it’s not difficult to imagine another scenario playing out: McCarthy becoming speaker with less than 218 votes. He needs a majority of those House members who cast votes on the speakership. If enough members stay home or vote present, the threshold for a majority can drop.
The way forward
Although no first-time speaker has gotten the job with less than 218 votes in at least 110 years, it’s happened a number of times for recent sitting speakers. Last Congress, Pelosi was reelected speaker with 216 votes. It was the same for Boehner in 2015. In fact, it appears that five speakers have been elected with less than 218 votes in the last century.
A number of Republicans may come to realize that while they can’t vote for McCarthy, there does not appear to be a viable Republican alternative to him becoming speaker at this time. They, therefore, may simply not vote “yes” or “no” on McCarthy at all. This would allow him to slip by assuming he still gets more votes for speaker than the new House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries.
Either way, all of this GOP angst is a pretty decent consolation prize for Democrats after losing the House majority. If nothing else, they’re watching a Republican Party that can’t seem to get its act together after a historically bad midterm for an opposition party.
And if McCarthy does become speaker, his net favorability rating of -19 points among all adults would by far be the worst for any first-time House speaker in the last 30 years. He’s far more unpopular than either Gingrich (-9 points) or Pelosi (+18 points) were among all Americans when they were first elected speaker. Both of them later became political targets for the minority party to exploit.