Just What Do McCarthy’s Antagonists Want, and Why Won’t They Budge?

As the Republicans’ drama over Representative Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become House speaker persists for round after round of negotiations and roll-call votes, one puzzling question is just what, exactly, the rebels want.

To the endless frustration of McCarthy and his allies, the insurgents’ demands have been heavy on two factors: internal procedural rules meant to expand the power of the far right within the House, and the insurgents’ desire to present themselves as uncompromising foes of Democrats’ agenda. But more than anything else, McCarthy’s most die-hard opponents just seem intent on taking him down.

“It’s not about policies, it’s about the fight,” said Doug Heye, a former aide to Representative Eric Cantor, the onetime majority leader who lost his seat in a stunning 2014 upset by a far-right challenger, David Brat. “The more you hear the word ‘fight’ or ‘fighter,’ the less you hear about a strategy for winning that fight.”

The longer the speaker battle has dragged on, the more McCarthy’s supporters have expressed exasperation at this state of affairs. Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas accused the holdouts of mouthing “stupid platitudes that some consultant told you to say on the campaign trail.” Representative Don Bacon, who holds a swing seat in Nebraska, has taken to calling them “the chaos caucus” and the “Taliban 20.”

Such strident language isn’t new: Representative John Boehner, who was hounded out of the speakership in 2015 by the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, later lashed out at one of its co-founders, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, as a “political terrorist” and a “jerk.” (Jordan is now backing McCarthy, and is set to run the powerful Judiciary Committee if and when the speaker fight is resolved.)

One of the peculiarities of this speaker vote has been watching McCarthy’s team try to marshal the conservative-industrial media complex, which helped power the rise of political outsiders like Donald Trump and has steadily weakened the ability of party leaders to keep backbenchers in line.

“We’ll see what happens when Tucker and Sean Hannity and Ben Shapiro start beating up on those guys,” Representative Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania wistfully told reporters at the Capitol this week. “Maybe that’ll move it.”

But Tucker Carlson did not beat up on those guys, instead celebrating the speakership debate as “pretty refreshing.” Nor is it clear that Fox News can command the exclusive loyalties of the right. Witness how, during the Republican primary for Senate last year in Pennsylvania, a network of conservative blogs and podcasts fueled the sudden rise of Kathy Barnette, a little-known conservative media personality who was able to throw a last-minute fright into Trump and Hannity’s preferred candidate, Mehmet Oz.

“Is this a game show?” a frustrated Hannity pressed one of the House holdouts, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, on his Fox News show on Wednesday night. She didn’t back down.

Chris Stirewalt, a former editor at Fox News, said that “what happens online, on talk radio and on Fox prime time has been and will continue to be the harbinger of what House Republicans will do.” He added that the representatives and congressional aides he was speaking with were “all talking about how their positions were playing with the different hosts and sites.”

So far, the major Fox hosts have stuck with McCarthy. But “there could be a land rush,” Stirewalt said, if “certain hosts or outlets are seen to be benefiting by being more extreme.”

Those kinds of incentives have helped to atrophy Republican leaders’ usual tools of maintaining discipline. Most committee assignments promise a congressional life of thankless drudgery, especially when your political ideology is oriented around stopping government action.

Some of the loudest conservative lawmakers now find it more appealing to become instant celebrities, and can afford to spurn McCarthy’s offers of congressional perks and the K Street-connected money spigot and tap into the fury of grass-roots Republican donors instead.

Remember Madison Cawthorn? Before his fall from grace, the North Carolina congressman rocketed onto the national political scene by tossing out red meat and racking up hits on Trump-friendly news outlets. Time magazine reported in 2021 that Cawthorn had informed colleagues, “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.”

Boehner once described the cycle as “getting elected, make a lot of noise, draw a lot of attention to yourself, raise a lot of money, which means you’re going to go make more noise, raise more money.”

This week, a nonaggression pact was struck between the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC close to McCarthy that spent more than $200 million to elect Republicans to House seats this year, and the Club for Growth, a conservative outside group that specializes in trying to unseat incumbents who are deemed too squishy.

That agreement served as an equally emphatic statement of where the real power lies in the Republican Party: outside its formal structures.

A New York Times review of the 20 lawmakers who have consistently voted against McCarthy found that 12 of them had denied the results of the 2020 election; 19 were linked to the Freedom Caucus; and 17 were endorsed by Trump in last year’s midterms.

Most of the rebels hail from deep-red districts. But not all of them.

Representative-elect Josh Brecheen, who was elected last year in Oklahoma, won his race by 49 percentage points. Three others won by at least 40, four of them won by 30 or more, and three carried their districts by margins in the 20s. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona ran unopposed.

But that doesn’t explain the actions of someone like Boebert, who survived a surprisingly vigorous challenge by about 500 votes. Three others — Eli Crane, Anna Paulina Luna and Scott Perry — won their races by just eight points.

More than any other trait, what defines the rebels is personality-driven politics. For these bomb-throwers, winning plaudits in the alternative conservative news ecosystem is the point.

“A lot of these people get into Congress and they get drunk on the red light of the camera,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican communications consultant.

“Conservative media stars need to recognize our opposition is Biden and the Democrats, not our fellow Republicans,” she added.

Paulina Luna, a newly elected Air Force veteran and Instagram influencer with nearly 500,000 followers, once confessed on her podcast, “I know this sounds weird, but I didn’t know what conservative was.”

Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman who has practically turned his opposition to McCarthy into a reality show, has clearly relished the attention. The introductory montage to his podcast, “Firebrand,” includes clips of Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, praising him as “one of the very few members in Congress who bothered to stand up against permanent Washington” and of Trump saying: “Ever watch this guy on television? He’s like a machine.”

On Wednesday, as McCarthy scrambled to cut new deals that might win over his antagonists, Gaetz sent out a fund-raising appeal. The text message said he was “leading the fight to elect a true conservative” as speaker.

“I’m fighting for you,” it continued, “and I need you to have my back like never before.”

Then, on Thursday, not long after Steve Bannon proposed Trump as a consensus candidate on his podcast, Gaetz proudly announced his pick for speaker on the House floor: Donald John Trump.

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  • Senator Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democratic senator from Michigan, said she would not seek a fifth term next year, creating an opening in the battleground state and giving her party another seat to defend on a tough 2024 map for Democrats. Carl Hulse has the details.

  • And Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who is up for re-election in the crucial swing state next year, said that he had prostate cancer but expected to make a full recovery, Neil Vigdor writes.

  • President Biden is set to announce new plans to allow up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti to legally enter the U.S. each month, while also cracking down on people who seek refuge by crossing the border with Mexico, Michael Shear reports.

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