Staggering through a gauntlet of 15 ballots to become Speaker of the House last January, Kevin McCarthy found himself in a challenging position from the start. The political calculations of both Democrats and some of his Republican colleagues helped cause his fall as Speaker; they also reveal the incentives for chaos in American politics.
The Republican House majority is among the narrowest in modern history. Other recent wafer-thin majorities—Republicans in 1953–54 and the beginning of 2001–02 and Democrats in 2021–22—were bolstered by a federal trifecta, in which the Speaker’s party controlled the presidency and the Senate. During the last Congress, Nancy Pelosi could keep her caucus in line by showing them the rewards of discipline: working in lockstep with Democrats in the Senate and the Biden White House, Pelosi could deliver on key Democratic priorities in the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act. But Republicans control only the House (barely), so McCarthy had fewer coalitional-management tools than Pelosi. Instead, he was stuck shepherding deals that would necessarily contain disappointing features for Republicans, especially those who had made maximal promises.
Those disappointments, combined with the appeal of outsider politics in the Republican coalition, helped make McCarthy’s position especially vulnerable. As part of his deal to become Speaker, he agreed to allow any one member to initiate a vote to vacate the chair (and thus remove him from the speakership). That gave incredible leverage to anyone wishing to cultivate an outsider brand. Florida representative Matt Gaetz used it.
For decades now, attacking the “establishment” has been a tactic to whip up grassroots energy on the political right. This dynamic has been turbocharged since the 2008 financial crisis. Populist revolts have regularly shaken the House Republican leadership, causing Majority Leader Eric Cantor to lose his Virginia primary in 2014 and prompting John Boehner to retire from his speakership in 2015. Most of the eight Republicans voting with Democrats to remove McCarthy as Speaker are relatively new to Congress. Only one (Colorado’s Ken Buck) was elected to the House before 2016, and some may be eyeing other offices. Many expect Gaetz to enter the 2026 Florida gubernatorial race, for example, and Matt Rosendale is weighing whether to make another run against Democratic incumbent Jon Tester in the 2024 U.S. Senate race in Montana. Bringing down McCarthy could help polish their outsider credentials.
For years, Democrats have strategically sought to magnify the forces of disruption in the Republican Party. In 2016, they helped raise Donald Trump’s political profile. A key Democratic strategy in the 2022 midterms was the calculated elevation of Trump-branded Republicans. They gambled (in many states, correctly) that general-election voters would be put off by candidates who seemed too disruptive or outlandish.
The Democratic alliance with Gaetz to oust McCarthy is another iteration of this strategy of escalating chaos. The spectacle of a decapitated Republican House majority fits neatly into Democrats’ narrative of the GOP as a party of disruption and distracts from negative headlines about the border or the economy or President Biden’s age. A weakened GOP House leadership may boost the influence of the White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate. McCarthy kept the lights on and avoided shutdowns. His successor might not.
In the aftermath of McCarthy’s fall, some Democratic players have tried to attribute their support for vacating the chair to long-standing grievances with him during his tenure as Speaker. That may be true in some cases, but it’s worth remembering that, as late as October 1, some Democrats were saying both on and off the record that they would block Gaetz. As Tennessee’s Steve Cohen said, “[McCarthy] did the right thing . . . and I’ll definitely vote not to vacate. I expect a good number of Democrats will as well.” That’s not how things turned out. Showing a party discipline that has eluded Republicans, no Democrat voted to save McCarthy when the vote came.
The same collusion of partisan calculations that endangered McCarthy also prevented him from finding an offramp from his ouster. Striking a deal with Democrats—giving them, say, more power in the House—could easily have discredited him even further with House Republicans.
The race for the new Speaker is kicking off. North Carolina’s Patrick McHenry is currently serving as Speaker pro tempore, and a drawn-out battle over the position could keep him in that interim post for a while. So far, Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan from Ohio have thrown their hats into the ring. Donald Trump has also been floated as a possible option. (One can become House Speaker without being a sitting member of the body.)
A bigger structural issue is whether the new Speaker’s position would be any more secure than McCarthy’s. The former Speaker worked assiduously to cultivate factions across the GOP caucus. His fundraising prowess helped win over the old establishment, and he consistently appealed to Trump—from backing his election challenge to praising him in the 2024 primary. McCarthy gave Freedom Caucus members positions in key committees (such as the powerful Rules Committee). No matter: he was brought down by a determined splinter group.
Some Republican House members have mused about reforming the rules for vacating the chair, such as requiring a higher threshold to initiate the vote. They hope that this would help stabilize the leadership of the Republican caucus. It’s unclear, though, whether enough GOP members would support that measure.
A number of pressing legislative issues lie ahead. Probably the most prominent is funding the government. The continuing resolution for funding—the pretext for McCarthy’s ouster—runs out on November 17. If Congress can’t reach a spending agreement well before then, another shutdown crisis could come.
Like other American institutions, the House faces several structural pressures. Perhaps those pressures will prompt a rethinking of how to govern. Or perhaps the gyre will continue to widen.
Photo by Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images