No one would believe him, but Adam Brandon was already claiming another scalp.
It was Wednesday, a handful of hours before House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) would stun Washington and drop out of the race to become the next House speaker.
Brandon, the CEO of the grassroots conservative group FreedomWorks, was convinced McCarthy couldn’t muster the votes. He tried convincing the rest of the crowd he was with on Wednesday, to no avail.
“I said there’s no way he’ll be speaker,” Brandon told Business Insider on Friday. “There was an audible gasp. ‘Surely, you’re joking!’ But he always had a maths problem.”
As Politico put it afterward, the House Republican caucus has entered into an “historic state of chaos.” The implosion on Thursday was only the latest in a string of bumps for a party in the midst of trying to recapture control of the White House for the first time since 2008.
And signs point to even more turmoil within the caucus and more trouble on the legislative front, as a number of cliffs and deadlines approach. The establishment is reeling. The “hell no” caucus is perhaps stronger than ever. And they can feel it.
“What we’re seeing,” Brandon said, “is a fundamental change in how our country moves forward.”
McCarthy’s decision to drop out was spearheaded by the House Freedom Caucus, a group of 40-plus conservative Republicans who have grown increasingly influential as they have bucked House leadership. The Freedom Caucus, which is ideologically aligned with groups like FreedomWorks, would not commit to backing McCarthy in a floor vote, meaning he did not have the necessary 218-vote support to become speaker.
The Republican Party is without a clear leader. Real-estate mogul Donald Trump is the front-runner for president, but few would call him a unifying figure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has experienced the same kind of turmoil with his Senate caucus and struggled to keep his troops in line. And current House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) some two weeks ago announced his intention to resign.
Confusion reigned across the party. One Republican aide told Business Insider on Thursday, “I honestly have no idea” of the caucus’ next move. Another echoed that sentiment. Yet another had similar thoughts, though the aide simply sent Business Insider the emoticon commonly referred to as a “shruggie,” that signals a shrug: “¯\_(ツ)_/¯”
“Thunderdome,” Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative activist and the editor in chief of the site RedState, told Business Insider.
The consensus among Republicans is that there is perhaps only one man who can truly unify the conference and earn the necessary 218 votes for speaker: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee and the current chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
There was a heavy push Friday from multiple corners of the Republican Party to get Ryan into the race for speaker. Former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Ryan’s running mate in 2012, reportedly called him and urged him to take the job. McCarthy and Boehner also privately lobbied him to enter the race. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), a former 2016 presidential candidate, even took the unusual step of publicly floating Ryan’s name.
“I think we very well may get Paul Ryan now,” Erickson said.
But there are two problems with the “draft Ryan” movement that amplify the biggest problems in the party right now. For one, he says he doesn’t want the job. For another, some conservatives were already pushing back on the premature Ryan coronation because of his stances on everything from immigration reform to the 2008 financial bailout.
Last year, many top Republicans were floating his name as a potential presidential candidate. But many of the same Republicans speculated he wouldn’t want that job — at least not yet — for the same reasons they say he does not want to be speaker now.
Being speaker is a full-time job with a heavy fundraising schedule, and he prefers to spend weekends at home in Wisconsin with his family. And by all accounts, he enjoys being chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where he has a prime opportunity to spearhead policy reforms.
“Chairman Ryan appreciates the support he’s getting from his colleagues but is still not running for speaker,” Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement Friday morning.
Meanwhile, some members of the House’s conservative wing pushed back on the Ryan flotation. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a member of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters that even though he respected Ryan, he could not support him because of the congressman’s support for the 2008 bailout of the financial industry.
Other conservatives complained about Ryan’s stance on immigration and the fact that a prominent Democratic supporter of immigration reform had offered praise for Ryan on Friday. For his part, Erickson wrote that Ryan would be a “dangerous” pick for conservatives, pointing to various stances through the years and calling Ryan a “creature of Washington.”
“Rep. Paul Ryan is a creature of Washington. He worked on Capitol Hill, worked in a think tank, then went back as a congressman. He speaks Washingtonese with the best of them,” Erickson wrote.
The chaos could hardly come at a worse time for Republicans. Congress is rapidly approaching three key fall deadlines:
- An October 29 deadline to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which funds many construction projects across the country.
- A November 5 deadline to raise the nation’s debt ceiling or risk a default on the country’s obligations.
- A December 11 deadline to keep the government funded and avoid a second shutdown in two-plus years.
“We will not mince words — this is the political equivalent of a dumpster fire,” Chris Krueger, a Washington-based analyst with Guggenheim Securities, said hours after McCarthy announced his decision.
Is Ryan the one to put out the fire?
“He’s a very interesting person,” Brandon told Business Insider of Ryan. “But the ‘young guns’ — I remember that — they came in and settled down with the ‘old guard.’ And I remember thinking, ‘I’m not too impressed with these young guns.'”
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