Last week, it looked like no one with enough credibility to win 218 votes in the House Republican Caucus would challenge Kevin McCarthy for Speaker. Enter Jason Chaffetz, a Utah conservative whose work in running the House Oversight Committee gives him plenty of credibility, if not necessarily support. Chaffetz made it official yesterday morning on Fox News:
Chaffetz pledged to support the House Republican caucus nominee — the Speaker vote is taken in the full House — but says McCarthy just can’t get to 218:
CHAFFETZ: Again, I think Mr. McCarthy has the majority of the conference, and we’re going to have that vote on Thursday. But in many ways it doesn’t matter because the real vote is when you call that name out in front of everybody on the floor of the House. So, the vote on Thursday is closed door, secret ballot, I will support the nominee.
But I just don’t believe that the nominee, if it’s Kevin McCarthy can actually get to 218. That’s why I’ve offer myself as a candidate to try to bridge that divide. I think those 50-plus people find I’m a fair, even-balanced person, that I can bridge that divide between — there are more centrist members and some of the more far right-wing members. That’s why I’ve entered this race.
WALLACE: So, basically, you’re saying you will continue your candidacy until the full vote of the House at the end of the month. …
CHAFFETZ: I will walk out of the there and support the nominee. I hope it’s me. I’m trying to fight for that. But if it’s Kevin McCarthy, I will support him, but he still has a math problem. It still can’t get to 218.
And I hope we can avoid those problems, bridge the gap, turn the fight — instead of internally — turn that fight to the Democrats and fight for the things that we all came to Congress for.
WALLACE: Why do you think 50-plus and whatever and the more hard-line conservatives won’t vote for McCarthy but would vote for you?
CHAFFETZ: I think the American public wants to see a change. They want a fresh start.
There’s a reason why we see this phenomenon across the country, and you don’t just give an automatic promotion to the existing leadership team. That doesn’t signal change. I think they want a fresh face and fresh new person who is actually there at the leadership table in the speaker’s role.
If nothing else, Chaffetz’ decision to challenge McCarthy complicates the upcoming leadership elections:
McCarthy retains considerable advantages ahead of the closed-door GOP leadership elections set for Thursday. He enjoys a week’s head start in building support, a ready-made political infrastructure, and close relationships across the Republican conference built during his stint as the GOP’s chief House candidate recruiter ahead of the 2010 midterm elections.
A McCarthy spokesman declined to comment Sunday on Chaffetz.
In Thursday’s party elections, a speaker candidate need only win the backing of a simple majority of those voting to become the Republican nominee. But unlike other leadership posts, the speaker is chosen in a subsequent floor vote of all House members, and the House’s 246 Republicans will be under no obligation to select the party nominee.
No Democrats are expected to back McCarthy or any other Republican, so the nominee cannot afford to lose the support of more than 28 GOP members.
McCarthy’s comments about the Benghazi select committee are just the catalyst for this challenge. Chaffetz puts his finger on the cause of this Republican summer of discontent: voters want a fresh start, and they don’t see the GOP as providing one. That’s why the Republican primary has been dominated by three people who have never held office, and why what would normally be considered a remarkable presidential bench has been, well, benched. Even though McCarthy helped build the Republican majority in Congress, he suffers from the same anti-establishment wave that is driving both parties into the arms of outsiders in this cycle.
Chaffetz may be a smart bet for Republicans, in two ways. First, no matter who gets the gavel after this fight, the basic arithmetic will remain unchanged — Republicans can’t override vetoes from the White House, and so must find ways to work with Democrats to get as much of their agenda passed. Having a reliable conservative who knows this may make that medicine go down a bit smoother, or at least will clarify reality for other conservatives. Meanwhile, Chaffetz can certainly get more pugilistic by passing standalone bills for the GOP agenda and demand that the Senate force Obama to veto those. There’s no reason not to at least do that much in service to the conservative agenda; it doesn’t interfere with the budget process and forces Democrats to cast votes on unpopular positions. It would clarify the stakes for 2016 while still providing responsible governance.
If that happens, that might boost trust in the newer generation of Republican officeholders in the presidential primaries at the moment. But Chaffetz would have to work fast to accomplish that, assuming he can win the Speaker election in the first place.