A once bullish GOP now sees a smaller House majority in its future, presenting a challenge to McCarthy

And the size of the GOP majority matters — both for McCarthy’s ability to secure the speaker’s gavel and his ability to govern a Republican conference that has swung increasingly to the right while a crop of moderates and party negotiators headed for the exits.

“I expect a slim majority for the GOP that may not be much bigger than what (Nancy) Pelosi has today,” said Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican veteran from Michigan who takes his retirement at the end of the year. “It will be very difficult to get an idea of ​​a ruling majority.”

Fears of a weaker-than-expected majority have grown in recent weeks as Republicans have watched their lead on the generic Congressional ballot evaporate, the enthusiasm gap between the two parties narrow and Democrats win some recent special elections and surpass President Joe Biden’s margins from 2020.

But top Republicans insist that despite House Democrats’ newfound optimism about November, the political environment for Democrats is still bleak, especially as they defend at least a dozen open seats. in competitive ridings after a wave of retirements. Additionally, wildcard balloting in some polls has dropped Republicans more than six points in 2020 and they still flipped a dozen seats — a point McCarthy has made publicly.

“People say, well, the generic ballot has changed. Well, I’m going to ask you this: what was the generic ballot in the last election?” McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill before the August recess. “I don’t know what the generic ballot will be. … I know it’s kind of built into the issues.”

And while there are clear signs that the overthrow of Roe v. Wade energized Democrats — as well as some independents and moderate Republicans — inflation remains a top concern for voters, and the GOP is confident it’s an issue where they have the upper hand.

Still, some nervous Republicans are calling for a strategic plan to deal with a shifting political landscape, particularly regarding their message and response on abortion rights — which has so far been disjointed or outright. non-existent.

“We’re losing ground because of this,” a GOP congressman told CNN. “Roe caught Republicans off guard and we didn’t use him to portray the left as extreme or show any kind of compassion on the issue.”

“Republicans want to say ‘inflation,’ like that solves all our problems. It doesn’t,” the MP added.

And with a smaller majority, McCarthy will have to heed the demands of the hardline House Freedom Caucus — both trying to push through its agenda and win the presidency. And behind closed doors, the conservative faction has already engaged in tense exchanges with other elements of the conference, in particular on the role of the controversial Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, according to sources familiar with the matter.

McCarthy’s path to the presidency

McCarthy took the country by storm in August to raise piles of cash and stumps for key candidates in his quest to win a majority, including stops in more than two dozen states and a grand annual retreat of donors in Wyoming.

And next month, McCarthy plans to roll out a formal policy agenda, with input from seven different member-led task forces, which he hopes members can execute in the fall.

“We’re very optimistic about our chances in the House,” said Dan Conston, chairman of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the McCarthy-linked super PAC that’s been covering the airwaves in a bid to regain a majority. “We have the right mix of good rookies, weak incumbents and plenty of seats open to Democrats retiring.”

Conston added, “The political environment still clearly favors Republicans, even as grassroots Democrat enthusiasm has increased as a result.”

McCarthy and his allies have also stepped into solidly red districts during the primary season to elect more mainstream and established Republicans — a tacit recognition that building a coalition government benefits him. The effort, however, yielded mixed results as a number of far-right candidates prevailed in the primaries — including GOP candidates like Joe Kent in Washington state, who has vowed not to. support McCarthy as a speaker.

McCarthy remains the clear favorite for the top job, but a smaller margin means he may have to cut more deals and offer more concessions to lock in the 218 votes needed to become president. Even some of McCarthy’s allies have acknowledged that the size of the majority will determine how easy or difficult his path to power will be, though they still believe he can pull it off.

“Nothing has changed in my mind, in terms of the political environment,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, a member of McCarthy’s leadership team. “The Republicans are going to do very well in November. Because the American people are upset with the direction of the country and they blame Joe Biden and the Democrats. … The only question is what is the majority and How pissed off are they?

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, a McCarthy ally who lost his primary to a Trump-endorsed colleague, argued that any margin that gives Republicans a majority will be seen as a strong showing. He also noted that there was now less handy fruit to pick up after the House GOP made surprising gains in the previous election cycle.

“A majority is a victory, because of all the seats, no one thought we would actually win the last election,” Davis said. “We just don’t have many of those competitive seats anymore.”

Rep. Tom Emmer, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, has never made any bold predictions about how many seats he thinks they’ll get, beyond maintaining that they’ll topple the handful of seats they need to win a majority. All year, he has hammered at Republicans that nothing is guaranteed and implored them not to be complacent.

“Anyone who thought taking over the majority was going to be easy needs to pull themselves together,” said NRC communications director Michael McAdams. “Majorities are won in November, not August, and we look forward to pursuing the case against the Democrats’ failed one-party rule.”

But despite Emmer’s no-curtains approach, he raised some eyebrows in GOP circles earlier this month when his office publicly confirmed the Minnesota Republican intended to seek the job. as GOP whip if he won a majority. Representative Drew Ferguson, the current Deputy Whip, also actively sought the position; House Conference Speaker Elise Stefanik and Rep. Jim Banks are also said to be interested in the job.

GOP hardliners could give McCarthy tweaks with narrow majority

If Republicans win the House by a narrow margin, governing can be difficult and chaotic for Republican leaders, especially with the House Freedom Caucus — a group known for its hard-line tactics and confrontations with leadership — eager to flex its muscles. muscles in a majority.

Even as a minority, the group attempted to press their claims and angered some of the party’s other wings in the process. At a weekly meeting earlier this year between McCarthy and leaders of the conference’s various ideological groups, the House Freedom Caucus chairman called on Republicans to stop publicly criticizing Greene, one of Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders. at Capitol Hill.

The request annoyed other lawmakers in the room, according to a GOP source with direct knowledge of the private conversation, adding that the Freedom Caucus tends to dominate cross-cutting meetings with leaders. And that may just be a taste of things to come if Republicans take over the House.

But with Biden still in the White House for at least the next two years, a GOP-led house would focus primarily on surveillance and investigation, where the party largely agrees.

Still, unavoidable bills to prevent government shutdowns and deal with a looming debt ceiling crisis could create huge headaches for Republican leaders.

“I don’t know what big legislative packages everyone thinks we can do in a divided government. The key to this divided government will be oversight — and I think a lot of Freedom Caucus members are excited about that prospect,” Davis says.

“Government funding can be a headache, depending on what the majority looks like, but keep in mind that Nancy Pelosi has managed to maintain her very slim majority in a very polarized environment.”

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