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The affair allegations that derailed Kevin McCarthy's quest for the speakership, explained

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A lot of people I speak to who aren't deeply involved in American politics are a little confused about what, exactly, is up with the House Republicans these days. Why did Kevin McCarthy remove himself from the running for speaker without even having a vote? And if the problem with McCarthy is that he wasn't conservative enough, why are people talking about Paul Ryan — who isn't any more conservative than McCarthy — as possibly being able to step into the breach? What, in other words, is actually going on?

It's awkward for the media because a key element of the story is a wild allegation for which nobody in journalism seems to have any evidence.

But it's clear at this point that the rumors — whether or not they are true — have started to play an important role in big-picture American politics. So here goes. People are saying that McCarthy, who is married, is (or was in the past) having an affair with Renee Ellmers, a married Republican member of Congress from North Carolina.

McCarthy's opponents on the right helped shove him out of the race by threatening to elevate this rumor from Capitol Hill gossip to national news. This explains why he bowed out without insisting on a vote, and it also explains why people think a person with McCarthy-like views might be able to squeak in.

Is the McCarthy-Ellmers rumor true?

I have no idea, and nobody else seems to either. It's obviously in neither party's interest to admit it if it is true, but it's also not the kind of thing they would easily be able to disprove if it weren't true. But Politico's team of congressional correspondents reports that Ellmers has thanked colleagues for their "prayers and support," and earlier this week her lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to GotNews, the website that originally published the rumors, calling them defamatory.

Can you give me a timeline of what happened?

Sure:

  • Back in January, Charles C. Johnson, a conservative blogger and provocateur known for trafficking in "whoa if true" quasi-news, posted a story to his website GotNews "breaking" the "story" (if, indeed, the story is true).
  • Sometime after that, rumors of the affair became widespread on Capitol Hill and became part of the general backdrop of congressional gossip.
  • Then on September 25, John Boehner unexpectedly announced his intention to resign as speaker and swiftly tapped McCarthy as his chosen successor.
  • The House GOP caucus was supposed to take a vote on its leadership candidates on October 8.
  • On October 7, GOP Rep. Walter Jones sent a cryptic letter to fellow Republicans calling on any members of Congress guilty of "misdeeds" to step aside and making reference to former Rep. Bob Livingston, who back in 1999 was forced to abandon the House GOP leadership in the wake of the revelation of an affair.
  • Later that day, Ellmers's attorneys sent a cease-and-desist letter to GotNews, calling the allegations of an affair both "false" and "defamatory."
  • Then, just before 8 am on the morning of October 8, Steve Baer, an influential conservative donor and activist known for his ties to the right wing of the party, sent an email to McCarthy, Ellmers, and others threatening to expose the alleged affair.
  • Hours later, McCarthy unexpectedly withdrew from the race, the leadership elections were canceled, and the caucus was thrown into chaos.

Why is this relevant?

Nobody thinks the alleged affair is the actual reason McCarthy faced opposition in his quest for the speaker's gavel. Rather, the affair seems to be a tool that his enemies inside the caucus and in the larger movement used against him.

It's a tool that works on two levels:

  • At least a few GOP congressmen who don't have strong objections to McCarthy on the merits might fear the elevation of a speaker who would end up tainting the caucus with a sex scandal.
  • McCarthy might have bowed out despite having the votes to win simply because he wanted to spare his family (he has a wife and two children) the embarrassment of an affair being revealed publicly.

The affair allegations matter, in other words, because they raise the possibility that the Freedom Caucus doesn't actually have the votes necessary to block an establishment-friendly choice for speaker from obtaining the 218 votes needed to take over. It's possible that the affair allegations were a crucial difference maker — either in driving a few votes away from McCarthy or in driving him from the field even though he had 218 supporters — and that Paul Ryan or some other figure could unite the party without saying or doing anything substantively different from what McCarthy has done.