The Chaffetz Effect

Oct. 6, 2015 — Responding to the uproar Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-23) caused when he indicated that the House Benghazi Committee was largely responsible for ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decline in the nationwide polls, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3) announced his candidacy for Speaker over the weekend.

Does this development endanger McCarthy’s ascension to the Speakership? Not within the Conference, but the Benghazi Committee flap certainly has caused many members, and the Republican faithful at large, to question his ability to lead.

Virtually, inappropriately, and incorrectly saying that the Benghazi investigative committee was politically driven, McCarthy has reinforced the leadership’s internal and external opponents. His statements have given Republican financial donors and grassroots activists reason for pause, while reinforcing the impression that the GOP congressional hierarchy has failed to inspire confidence within the right-of-center political base.

In addition to Chaffetz, Orlando Rep. Dan Webster (R-FL-10) is an announced Speaker candidate. He made a very late run against outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-OH-8) at the beginning of this year but only attracted 12 votes. He is viewed as a nuisance factor to McCarthy in this race largely because of his earlier performance, but also since the Florida redistricting process now before the state courts is likely to make his current district a strongly Democratic seat. Therefore, members know Webster’s long-term prospects for even returning to the next Congress appear unlikely at best and bleak at worst.

The combined effect of having opponents will decrease McCarthy’s vote total, but will that endanger his prospects on the House floor? When Speaker Boehner leaves office at the end of the month, an official vote of the entire body will then be held to officially fill the vacancy. The winner must obtain an absolute majority of those present and voting. With 246 Republicans in the Conference when Boehner resigns, 29 GOP members not supporting McCarthy on the floor would send the vote to at least a second round.

The McCarthy forces maintain their vote support level is around the 200 mark. And, with only Webster as an opponent, such a total is believable. Therefore, even in the one-on-one contest with Webster, maybe as many as 46 Republicans are either opposed to supporting McCarthy, undecided whether to do so, or simply not prepared to say, far more than the 29 needed to cause serious problems.

Not voting a particular way within the Republican Conference meeting is much different, at least for most members, than carrying through that same mind-set for a floor vote. For the Republican Speaker candidate to fail to capture an outright majority when the party has an overwhelming majority would likely doom the entire Conference’s ability to operate in a confident manner for the remaining year of the present Congress.

How much does the Chaffetz candidacy change the equation? Not greatly within the Conference, but it could strengthen the resolve of those willing to carry their opposition to the floor. The Chaffetz and Webster candidacies, and maybe others who have yet to declare, brings the hard opposition much closer to the 29 Republican votes necessary to deny McCarthy the Speakership, at least on the first roll call, thus potentially engendering life into a late-forming floor campaign against him.

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