McCarthy is favorite to get speaker role if Republicans keep House, but not a shoo-in

Who will be what in the House in the 116th Congress is as muddled as it’s been in decades.

We start today with a look at the GOP leadership contests and scenarios. We’ll evaluate the Democrats later in the week.

Here’s the process. The full House votes for speaker on January 3, 2019. The winning candidate must secure an outright majority of the entire House: at least 218 votes cast by the 435 members. The Democrats will formally nominate one candidate. The Republicans another. But it’s not unusual for members of both parties to cast ballots for someone besides the formal nominees. Plus, the House Speaker doesn’t have to be a member of the body.

The House Democratic Caucus and House Republican Conference will likely meet in late November or early December to select their candidates. Only members who prevailed in the midterm election and will be part of the 116th Congress will take part in this internal election.

Who assumes the speakership in addition to who emerges as the top leaders on both sides of the aisle hinges on which party is in charge - and by how many seats - in the new Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is retiring. For the GOP, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is the odds-on favorite to become speaker if Republicans maintain the majority. But there’s a reason why McCarthy isn't the speaker now.

The California Republican lacked the votes to succeed former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, when he retired three years ago. Remember, the speaker must secure an absolute majority of the entire House. McCarthy far and away held a majority of Republicans. But with the entire House voting, McCarthy appeared to lack just enough votes to become speaker due to a few Republican defections.

This is the problem for McCarthy: Let’s hypothetically say Republicans retain the House with 230 seats. All McCarthy needs in the GOP Conference vote is 116 supporters. One more than 50 percent. However, he’ll need 218 on the floor. McCarthy would likely score a majority of the Republican Conference. But McCarthy’s potential matriculation to the speakership swings on the size of a prospective Republican majority in the 116th Congress.

Factionalism dominated the House Republican Conference after the departure of Boehner. Ryan was the only figure most Republicans could universally embrace – although it took a while for Ryan to come around to wanting the job himself. McCarthy likely has a direct route to the speaker’s suite if the GOP holds the House by a substantial margin. But McCarthy’s chances diminish with each seat Republicans lose next week. McCarthy’s chances of becoming Speaker decline geometrically if Republicans salvage control of the House by just a handful of seats. That’s because there are more than five to six Republicans who would support someone besides McCarthy. In fact, this particular scenario is precisely the situation the Majority Leader faced in 2015.

But McCarthy may have a wildcard tucked into his vest: the possible support of President Trump. It’s unknown if the president would wade into a House GOP leadership contest. During this term, Mr. Trump periodically chirped about what he interpreted as deficiencies with Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken. McCarthy has worked to become the President’s most-trusted ally in leadership. An endorsement by President Trump could be just the boost McCarthy needs.

In a weird way, McCarthy may have a better shot at becoming minority leader than speaker should the GOP lose the House. The House elects the speaker on the floor. The House Republican Conference internally metes out all other leadership positions by a majority vote. For the sake of argument, imagine Republicans lose the House and dip to 212 seats. That means McCarthy - or any other successful candidate – needs the support of only 107 Republicans. Fifty percent plus one.

It may be a little warped, but losing the House could be the best outcome for McCarthy himself.

Why might McCarthy lack the votes? The biggest reason lies with the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Freedom Caucus Leader Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and leader emeritus Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, control about 40-plus votes. That’s enough to deny McCarthy the speakership right there. And guess who’s running for speaker? Jim Jordan.

Many in the Freedom Caucus don’t think the current leadership team has been aggressive enough in efforts to hold the feet of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to the fire over alleged FISA abuse and the Russia probe. Some Republicans also don’t like how the current GOP brass addressed border wall funding. Both issues could be litmus tests in the pending leadership skirmish.

There’s a reason why Jordan appears regularly on cable news and attends most if not all closed-door interviews as part of the Russia investigation. By the same token, there’s a reason why McCarthy recently unveiled a plan to fully fund the border wall. Both lawmakers are trying to court votes.

It’s unclear if Jordan could expand his universe of potential votes much beyond the Freedom Caucus. A lot of rank-and-file House Republicans don’t like the Molotov cocktail political tactics of the Freedom Caucus. That could cap Jordan’s vote total in the sixties to eighties on a good day. That also means Jordan may not command enough votes to win an official leadership race inside the GOP Conference.

But, Jordan and the Freedom Caucus could be kingmakers, whether Republicans are in the majority or minority.

That brings us to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.

It wasn’t that long ago that many believed Scalise maxed out at the number three position in the House Republican hierarchy. But Scalise now commands extraordinary respect, adulation and sympathy among rank-and-file Republicans after taking a bullet at last year’s GOP baseball practice – and then rallying back to health.

Scalise has made it clear he won’t directly challenge McCarthy. But Scalise could become a key candidate for any leadership position – in the majority or minority – depending on McCarthy’s fate.

This is why the leadership fights could get rather interesting.

Some Republicans may try to court House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, for a spot. After all, it was Brady who navigated the choppy waters of tax reform and put a bill on the president’s desk to sign last year. The Texas Republican delegation remains the largest in the House GOP Conference. Marshalling the unanimous backing of Texas GOPers alone grants a candidate about a quarter of the votes they need in an internal House Republican leadership race.

That’s why other Texans like House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, could also emerge as factors in the leadership matrix.

GOPers widely applaud Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the chief deputy whip, for his political acumen, granular understanding of House districts and vote-counting skills. The GOP brass leaned on McHenry during Scalise’s prolonged convalescence. McHenry could become either the chairman or top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee in the next Congress. Or McHenry could also be destined for a higher leadership post.

Other names to watch: Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio. Stivers leads the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and GOP re-election efforts this cycle. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is the former speaker of the Utah legislature. The name of Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., surfaces occasionally. Walker chairs the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the largest bloc of conservatives in the House. Finally, all of the names mentioned above are men. That’s where House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., comes in. That said, the district McMorris Rodgers represents is one which could flip if Democrats successfully ride a wave to the majority.

There are also some darkhorse leadership candidates. Keep an eye on Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Richard Hudson, R-N.C., and Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio.

All of this is contingent upon which party controls the House and by how many votes. No one knows how this is going to turn out.

We’ll assess the Democrats leadership races next time. And be forewarned. The picture on that side of the aisle is just as confounding.