The Complicated Race to Replace Paul Ryan

Can’t pick a leader until you know what the job will be.

Kevin McCarthy.
Current No. 2 Republican, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Wednesday was a funny day on the House side of the Capitol. Republican members, when asked, would call premature any discussion of who might replace retiring Speaker Paul Ryan. As they said this, though, one could see the wheels in their heads spinning with gaming, plotting, and palace intrigue. With rumors surrounding Ryan’s retirement swirling for months, this wasn’t the first day they had considered the possibility.

Instead of engaging with the issue, House Republicans said the first priority is retaining control of the House. And even though they’re being coy, there’s good reason to wait: who controls the House could play a deciding factor in who’s the next Republican leader, as the election processes for speaker and minority leader are entirely different beasts.

The contest is assumed to be between the current No. 2 Republican, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and No. 3, Majority Whip Steve Scalise. Scalise has said that if McCarthy wants to make a run, he won’t get in his way. This isn’t purely a gentleman’s deference. Game it out just a little bit, and you could see a situation in which Scalise is essentially conceding to McCarthy the minority leader position, while Scalise would have the inside track for speaker.

“Here’s the reality,” New York Rep. Chris Collins told reporters Wednesday. “To be speaker, you need 218 votes. To be a leader, minority or majority leader, you need about 110. So they’re two very different races, and that’s what we saw when Boehner left, who could garner 218 votes.”

Indeed, when Boehner retired in 2015, the person who was next in line was unable to garner 218 votes. That happens to be the same person who is currently next in line to succeed Ryan: Kevin McCarthy. Various reasons have been ascribed for McCarthy’s failure last time. There were concerns that he wasn’t conservative enough. He flubbed an interview so badly that members worried he either wasn’t bright, or just wasn’t ready for prime time. And then there were allegations of an affair. Of the three, the first is the concern that’s most likely to dog McCarthy’s next bid. The chamber’s right flank of the conference has never viewed McCarthy as conservative enough, and there’s not much politicking he can do now to convince them.

If the House GOP retains a slim majority, that conservative bloc could thwart McCarthy’s bid. The hypothetical that Collins threw out was that Republicans could return with 230 seats, instead of the 241 they enjoy now. Even in that most generous hypothetical, the speaker nominee could only lose 12 Republican votes on the floor.

“You see where that goes,” Collins said. “There are certain segments of our conference who have veto power.”

Conservative leaders are already flaunting their potential influence over the process.

“If we control enough votes to veto who the next speaker is going to be,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, in his element counting votes, told reporters Wednesday, “do you think it will be someone who engages less with the Freedom Caucus?” That would seem to be a nod in the direction of Scalise—or at least against McCarthy.

But Meadows, like other members, said that retaining the majority is the first priority before bandying about names for Ryan’s replacement. For Meadows, though, holding the majority isn’t just a team-spirit talking point. The Freedom Caucus’ hold over the House Republican conference is rooted in its sway over the speaker, who needs its votes to secure and maintain the position. If the next election is for minority leader—which would be chosen by a majority of the Republican conference, not the whole House—then the Freedom Caucus has nothing.

I asked Meadows if he thought McCarthy would have the best chance to win minority leader in the event Republicans lose the House, while Scalise, the more acceptable figure to all factions within the party, would have the leg up in a speaker’s race if Republicans keep the chamber.

“We’re focused on speaker’s races right now,” Meadows said. He paused, then he winked at me. (He winks.) “I’m not going to answer that right now.”

There is another possibility, though, for how this all plays out: Republicans lose the House majority, and no one wants to stick around for such a boring job. Maybe McCarthy and/or Scalise, like Ryan, would decide that they no longer have an interest in being a Sunday Dad, picking up Nancy Pelosi’s breadcrumbs in the minority, and would instead prefer to be a Rich Lobbyist Dad.

Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate who’s retiring after this Congress, won’t be around for the next Republican leader. But he didn’t think the McCarthy if we’re in the minority, Scalise if we’re in the majority dynamic was anywhere near set.

“How the midterm election goes will have a definite impact on who the next leaders will be,” Dent said. “If we go into the minority, maybe members say they want a complete change. If we stay in the majority, then there’s an argument to be made for continuity.”

And then there’s President Donald Trump. Trump likes Scalise, but he loves McCarthy. If Trump waded in with a McCarthy endorsement for speaker, the right wing of the party could feel pressure to get behind the president’s choice.

“I mean, it’s the president’s party,” Meadows said. “And so what he thinks certainly does matter.”