House Republicans have been in various stages of chaos — both healthy and unhealthy — ever since retaking control of the chamber in 2010. Speaker John Boehner was constantly trying to cut deals with President Obama, usually giving the President most or all of what he wanted, so Republicans wanted him gone. Boehner resigned in 2015 and is now a high-paid lobbyist, while his lieutenant, former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was taken out in a shocking primary defeat. Their clearest successor at the time was Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, but he stumbled quickly and took himself out of the running. With no other favorites emerging, establishment Republicans and conservatives alike settled on drafting Paul Ryan, long considered an up-and-comer in the GOP, to serve as Speaker.
But Ryan has disappointed conservatives by governing more like Boehner than the small-government, entitlement-slasher Ryan originally claimed to be. He passed massive spending bills, failed to defund Planned Parenthood, and generally surrendered territory to the Left while gaining very little in return. And the House Republican caucus is not much more unified now than it was under Boehner.
Ryan took the unusual step of announcing his retirement months before the critical midterm elections in which Republicans are trying to retain control of the House. That has set up an intense, behind-the-scenes horse race for his successor. Here’s a brief look at the contenders:
Front Runner: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
As Ryan’s top lieutenant, McCarthy has the inside track to the speakership. In fact, he appeared to be the one who would succeed Boehner in 2015 until a disastrous Fox News interview in which he implied that the Republican-led investigations into Hillary Clinton’s scandals were part of an effort to bring down her poll numbers, rather than find the truth. This misstep cost him dearly and exposed the way Washington works — McCarthy wasn’t really a particularly compelling candidate for speaker, but he just happened to be next in line, so he was going to get it. He later stepped aside, and Republicans settled on Ryan.
As Ryan’s second-in-command, McCarthy has built up a bit more substance. He actually has some experience to run on and has worked hard in outreach to conservative members and outside groups. He can no longer be dismissed as merely the next guy in line. The question is whether McCarthy has a compelling message, and whether conservatives think he will merely be another Boehner-Ryan compromise type rather than a real leader.
Coming in Hot: House Majority Whip Steve Scalise
As the third highest ranking Republican in the House, Scalise has also made a name for himself. He was previously chairman of the Republican Study Committee and won a three-way race to succeed McCarthy as majority whip. Scalise is arguably more conservative than McCarthy and a more compelling candidate, with a warm personality. Moreover, the horrific shooting at a congressional baseball practice last year that nearly killed him, and his subsequent recovery, showed Scalise’s true character. He faces the same question of what his approach will be.
To Be Taken Seriously: Rep. Jim Jordan
One of the founding members of the House Freedom Caucus, Jordan is a favorite among conservatives. He is unabashedly conservative in both words and votes and is unafraid to make the case for conservative policies — to fight where Boehner and Ryan weren’t willing to. But he’s being dogged by allegations that he knew and did nothing about sexual abuse going on at Ohio State University when he was a wrestling coach there in the 1980s and 1990s — though he is cooperating with investigators and has denied the allegations unequivocally.
Jordan can probably be assured of the votes of most of the roughly 30 members of the House Freedom Caucus. Whether the establishment would ever get on board with him, however, is somewhat in doubt. It could be that Jordan is running so that conservatives can control a bloc of votes that will be delivered to a candidate who is willing to make assurances to them.
The Unknown Dark Horse(s)
As we saw with Paul Ryan, the new speaker could also be someone unexpected. In fact, the Speaker of the House does not even have to be a member of the House — it can be just about anybody. Last year there were rumblings about a movement among House conservatives to depose Ryan and replace him with someone like Rick Santorum, the former senator and presidential candidate who has been a leading architect of the most plausible current effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Another name tossed about at the time was former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Although nothing came of it, one of these names could be proposed as a compromise if none of the three above candidates can garner the necessary 218 votes. While every speaker in history has been a member of the House, this type of move cannot be discounted.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore