House Speaker John Boehner's surprise decision to resign was a gift to the heavy favorite to succeed him: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
While Boehner will be sticking around for another five weeks or so, he didn't give Republican dissidents an eternity to coalesce around a rival to McCarthy and round up votes. McCarthy, who was the party's whip before becoming majority leader, has his own vote-counting operation in place and longstanding relationships with the lawmakers who will choose Boehner's successor.
Boehner also gave McCarthy a small boost during a press conference with reporters, saying he "would make an excellent speaker."
McCarthy wouldn't necessarily be the first choice of conservative rebels who have given Boehner so many headaches over the last four years. But right now, they don't really have anyone who is prepared to go toe to toe with him for the speakership. Instead, members of the conservative Freedom Caucus are likely to focus on getting one of their own elevated to majority leader, the No. 2 spot in the GOP hierarchy.
If they succeed, it could give them a lot of leverage over McCarthy after he takes the speaker's gavel. Because if McCarthy doesn't toe the conservative line during legislative fights in 2016, conservatives will have someone lined up to replace him when a new Congress starts in January 2017.
McCarthy rose through the ranks by not offending anyone
So far, the 50-year-old California Republican has led a charmed existence in the House, having rocketed through the ranks of leadership first as an understudy to former Rep. Eric Cantor and later succeeding him as majority leader. He's done it with an easy manner and a willingness to take on the grueling tasks of raising money for fellow Republicans and campaigning for them.
His greatest attribute may be that he doesn't really alienate anyone. He also has a keen eye for filling his staff with top talent. On the other hand, McCarthy wasn't as effective a whip as predecessors Cantor and Tom DeLay.
If McCarthy wins the job, he'll have ascended from freshman to speaker in the shortest span — under nine years — since Speaker Charles Crisp, who ran the House from 1891 to 1895.
Nobody seems that eager to challenge McCarthy
Several House Republicans named as potential challengers to McCarthy declined to say immediately whether they would run against him.
"Yesterday was the pope’s day; today is Speaker Boehner’s day. Tomorrow is another day," Daniel Webster, who got 12 votes for speaker in January, said in a statement indicating that he'll have more to say later.
Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee who has fought leadership on the reauthorization of the Export-Import bank and other issues, was similarly reticent Friday.
Hensarling enters meeting of entire texas delegation, and says only, "I'll release a statement when I am ready to release a statement."
— Billy House (@HouseInSession) September 25, 2015
Hensarling is "considering his options," his spokesperson, Sarah Rozier, said, and is likely to make a decision about a leadership race early next week.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who might be able to beat McCarthy in a head-to-head fight, has said he doesn't want the job.
House conservatives may focus on seizing the No. 2 job
The rebel conservatives who were ready to try to vote Boehner out of the speakership are not ecstatic about McCarthy. But he's got more votes tucked away than anyone else does. The better target of opportunity, some believe, is to let McCarthy have the speaker's job — at least for now — and install a member of the House's conservative Freedom Caucus as majority leader.
Broad consensus now that the ideological leadership fight will be majority leader race. McCarthy will face nominal challenge only 4 speaker— Paul Kane (@pkcapitol) September 25, 2015
It's not that the trash-the-establishment wing of the House Republican Conference would be satisfied with the second-ranking job. But it's a way into the leadership. And McCarthy would have a year to prove himself — a seemingly impossible task at the moment — or risk getting thrown overboard after the 2016 election.
One likely candidate for the job is House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican whose standing took a hit when it was revealed late last year that he spoke to a white supremacist group more than a decade ago. Others include Georgia Rep. Tom Price, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, according to media reports. Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, who was once the party's chief deputy whip, said Republicans need to rethink their approach to governing when choosing leaders.
"I am hopeful that during this season of change, House Republicans will focus on a plan to get us out of our dysfunctional state, and not just settle for a change in ranks," Roskam said.
McCarthy's elevation could open up posts down the line
Roskam is one of several candidates in or around leadership who could run for top jobs in the wake of Boehner's resignation, and their decisions may depend on how the elections are structured.
Before the full House votes on the next speaker, the party will hold an internal election to try to settle on its candidate. If it's McCarthy, that will open up his job and potentially others further down the leadership ladder. It is not yet clear whether Republicans will force their leaders to give up current posts if they want to run for a higher office or if they will be allowed to keep their current posts if they run and lose.
Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the current chief deputy whip, is seen as a likely candidate to run for the whip job if Scalise wins the majority leader post or is forced out because he runs for it and loses. Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma is also looking at that race, if it happens. And Rep. Pete Sessions will seek the job, according to Bob Costa of the Washington Post.
Until Republican leaders announce when the election will be held — and whether leaders will have to effectively resign to run — it's impossible to know how the field will shake out. But what's clear at the moment is that McCarthy is the man to beat for speaker. And then he'll spend the next year or so looking over his shoulder.