House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy shocked the House Republican Conference Thursday by pulling out of the race for speaker, forcing leaders to postpone the election and throwing the party into chaos.
The 50-year-old Californian was the strong favorite for the secret-ballot election among only House Republicans to succeed outgoing Speaker John Boehner. He faced what were widely considered to be quixotic challenges from Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida.
But McCarthy lost the support of the House "Freedom Caucus," a band of three dozen or so hardcore recalcitrant Republicans. They announced Wednesday that they would back Webster for speaker. Even if McCarthy won Thursday's vote within the Republican conference, he would have had to cobble together a 218-vote majority on the House floor to take the gavel. With the Freedom Caucus Republicans threatening to abandon him at that stage, he likely would have been denied the speakership or forced to look to Democrats for votes. There are 247 House Republicans, meaning he could only afford to lose 29 and win with only GOP votes on the floor.
Sources close to McCarthy insist that his decision wasn't about an inability to secure the votes for speaker in the conference or on the House floor.
"This was a decision based on a lot of thought and soul-searching by Kevin and his family. And that’s the key in his decision — his family," said one person close to him. "It certainly wasn’t about getting the votes. That could’ve happened. However, he’s not going to be repeatedly attacked by 40 members of our conference. Nothing will ever be good enough for them, and Kevin doesn’t want to put his family through that and he doesn’t want to put the 200-plus other members through that."
McCarthy will remain as majority leader, the person close to him said. The new date for the Republican Conference's speaker election has not yet been set.
Check out Vox's new podcast "The Weeds" for more on the insider issues in Washington