Analysis: Kevin McCarthy’s 218 problem

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House Republicans voted for Kevin McCarthy as their leader on Tuesday. But that victory contained a dangerous omen for the California Republican as he tries to become the next speaker of the House.

McCarthy won the leadership vote over Arizona GOP Rep. Andy Biggs by a 188-31 margin. Which is the problem.

CNN projects that Republicans will win control of the House – but their majority will be a narrow one. As of Wednesday evening, CNN projected Republicans will control 218 seats compared to 208 for the Democrats. If the current leaders of the nine uncalled races wind up winning, that would leave Republicans with 221 seats.

Under that scenario, McCarthy would only be able to afford to lose three Republican votes in the new Congress to secure a majority and become speaker, presuming Democrats remain united in opposition.

That would mean McCarthy could only lose one out of every 10 members who cast a ballot for Biggs. Which is almost zero margin for error.

Now, it’s worth noting here that voting against McCarthy in a secret-ballot election among the Republican conference isn’t the same thing as voting against him to be speaker on the House floor in January.

It’s possible that the members who voted against him – particularly the members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus – did so as a way of voicing their concerns and getting McCarthy’s attention.

McCarthy can also take some solace in fact that past House speakers initially received fewer than 218 votes in their intraparty elections. Democrats nominated Nancy Pelosi for speaker by a 203-32 vote in 2018, and Republicans nominated Paul Ryan by a 200-43 vote in 2015 – though both enjoyed larger majorities at the time than McCarthy will.

McCarthy now has the better part of two months to change his opponents’ minds. But, man, that’s a lot of minds that need changing – even if former President Donald Trump, who McCarthy has assiduously courted for years, leans on the Freedom Caucus to back him.

If McCarthy is not able to do that, it would be the second time in less than a decade his bid for House speaker came up short. In October 2015, McCarthy dropped out of the race to replace Speaker John Boehner when it became clear that he didn’t have the votes to win.

We’re not there yet. McCarthy is still the odds-on favorite to serve as speaker. That’s at least in part because there is no credible challenger to him. (Sorry Andy Biggs!)

But if McCarthy can’t get to 218 votes in January, you can be sure someone (maybe Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan) will step into that breach. Politics, after all, abhors a vacuum.

The Point: McCarthy has time before he faces the judgment of the House. But he has a LOT of work to do.

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