House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy wishes the best when he becomes speaker of the House. The current minority leader and former majority leader may think he’s locked up the speaker’s seat by now, but before the new Congress begins on Tuesday, he doesn’t.
McCarthy’s problems securing the top spot in the House are easier to understand when you realize where he’s gone. He has historically made up the majority of potential first-time speakers, and McCarthy himself has historically been unpopular compared with other House members trying to become speakers.
McCarthy’s GOP gets just 222 seats in the 2022 midterm elections, leaving him little room for error to get 218 votes — the number needed to get the speaker’s seat, assuming all members vote. McCarthy can only afford to lose the support of four Republicans, and the list of Republican lawmakers who say they will vote against him goes beyond that.
Not since Democrat John Nance Garner in 1931 has a potential first Speaker of the House received such a slim majority. The only recent inaugural speaker who has come close to McCarthy’s status quo is the former Illinois representative. Dennis Hastert’s Republican Party entered 1999 with 223 seats. After Newt Gingrich resigned after the 1998 midterm elections and his potential successor, Bob Livingston, resigned after his extramarital affairs came to light, Hastert had the advantage of being the Compromise option.
In fact, all other potential first-time House speakers over the past 90 years have at least 230 seats. Speakers with fewer than that number are in office (ie, have been elected at least once).
Remember, McCarthy had been close to the speakership before. When Republican John Boehner resigned in 2015, he was next in line to become speaker. But the California Republican couldn’t rally his caucus around him enough to win a majority in the House, and Paul Ryan became speaker instead.
McCarthy then had more votes at his disposal—the Republicans had 245 seats, more than any potential first-time speaker in the past 30 years. If he couldn’t get 218 votes under more favorable circumstances, one might wonder how he got 218 votes now?
The polls provide some answers to that question and help explain why McCarthy faced an uphill battle in the first place.
A CNN/SSRS poll last month found him with a net approval rating, or approval minus disapproval, of +30 among Republicans. That’s certainly not bad. (Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has a notoriously low rating among Republicans.) But a net rating of +30 isn’t great either.
Another way to put it: Republicans love McCarthy, but are far from loving McCarthy. There isn’t a lot of grassroots support for him to be a speaker.
McCarthy has the second-worst approval rating among all first-time potential speakers among his own party members over the past 28 years. Only Gingrich’s +24 at the end of 1994 was lower. Others like Boehner (late 2010) and Nancy Pelosi (late 2006) are just over +50 among party believers.
The good news for McCarthy is that he’s more popular now than he was in late 2015, when his net favorability among Republicans was just +2 points. At that point, Republicans had a more politically appealing option in Ryan.
The former vice presidential nominee has a net approval rating of +48 among Republicans.
The biggest problem McCarthy’s Republican foes now face is the absence of Ryan. If McCarthy loses, there isn’t a single well-known and popular Republican waiting. It’s hard to fight empty handed.
In this case, it is not difficult to imagine an alternative scenario: McCarthy becomes speaker by less than 218 votes. He needs a majority of House members to vote for the speakership. If enough members stay home or show up to vote, the threshold for a majority is lowered.
While no first-time speaker has received the job with fewer than 218 votes in at least 110 years, that has happened multiple times for recent incumbents. In the last Congress, Pelosi was re-elected speaker with 216 votes. The same goes for the 2015 Bona. In fact, five Speakers seem to have been elected with fewer than 218 votes in the last century.
Many Republicans may realize that while they cannot vote for McCarthy, there currently appears to be no other viable Republican replacement for him as speaker. So they probably wouldn’t vote “yes” or “no” for McCarthy at all. That would allow him to slip by assuming he still has more speaker votes than the new House Democratic leader, Hakeem Jeffries.
Either way, all this Republican anxiety is a pretty good consolation prize for Democrats after losing their House majority. If nothing else, what they’re seeing is that the Republican Party doesn’t seem to be pulling together after one of the worst opposition midterm elections in history.
If McCarthy does become Speaker, he would have a net approval rating of -19 among all adults, which would be the worst approval rating for a first-time House speaker in the past 30 years. He was much more unpopular among Americans than Gingrich (-9) or Pelosi (+18) when he was first elected speaker. Both have since become political targets that minority parties can exploit.