Former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was once the mastermind behind the Republican Party’s electoral success, but his fall from grace has left his allies and supporters in a state of uncertainty. McCarthy spent 15 years building a formidable political machine that helped the GOP win back control of the House in 2022, but his loyalty to former president Donald Trump cost him his position and his reputation.
McCarthy’s rise to power
McCarthy rose from a junior lawmaker to the House majority leader in less than a decade, thanks to his fundraising prowess, his recruitment skills, and his close ties with influential donors and interest groups. He was instrumental in crafting the GOP’s strategy and message, as well as intervening in primaries to support candidates who could win in competitive districts. He also cultivated a loyal network of allies and protégés, who benefited from his mentorship and generosity.
McCarthy’s ambition was clear: he wanted to be the next speaker of the House, following in the footsteps of his predecessors John Boehner and Paul Ryan. He had the support of most of his colleagues, as well as Trump, who endorsed him for the job in 2018. He also had the backing of powerful outside groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, and the Koch network.
McCarthy’s downfall began with his decision to embrace Trump’s false claims of election fraud in 2020, which alienated some of his moderate and independent supporters. He also faced criticism from some of his fellow Republicans for not doing enough to rein in Trump’s erratic and divisive behavior, especially after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
McCarthy’s fate was sealed on October 3, 2023, when he was ousted as speaker by a bipartisan coalition of 218 lawmakers, who voted to replace him with Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a vocal critic of Trump and McCarthy. The unprecedented move was orchestrated by a group of anti-Trump Republicans, led by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who teamed up with Democrats to invoke a rarely used procedure known as a motion to vacate the chair.
The vote was a stunning rebuke to McCarthy, who had tried to appease both Trump loyalists and Trump skeptics within his party. It also exposed the deep divisions and distrust among Republicans, who were split over how to deal with Trump’s legacy and influence.
McCarthy’s legacy is now in limbo, as his political machine faces an uncertain future. His allies and supporters are unsure whether he will remain in Congress or resign, as some have suggested. His fundraising operation is also in jeopardy, as some donors may be reluctant to associate with him or his causes. His recruitment program is also in doubt, as some candidates may distance themselves from him or face challenges from pro-Trump rivals.
McCarthy’s ouster also raises questions about the GOP’s prospects in the 2024 midterm elections, which are expected to be highly competitive and contentious. Without McCarthy’s leadership and guidance, Republicans may struggle to maintain or expand their majority in the House, especially if they face backlash from Trump’s base or defections from moderate voters.
McCarthy’s political empire may not be completely destroyed, but it is certainly damaged and diminished. He may still have some influence and clout within his party, but he is no longer the kingmaker he once was. He is now a cautionary tale of how loyalty to Trump can backfire and ruin one’s career.