Electoral Considerations of the 21 McCarthy Holdouts

by Jacob Rubashkin January 12, 2023 · 10:05 AM EST

At the start of the new Congress, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy limped to the speakership in a post-midnight vote that followed four days of stalemate and a final half-hour of chaos on the floor of the House of Representatives.

McCarthy always had the support of an overwhelming majority of the GOP conference. But a group of 21 holdouts prevented him from securing a majority of the entire chamber, which is the threshold to elect a speaker of the House.

Ultimately McCarthy wore down his opponents, winning over more than half of them with a sweeping set of concessions limiting his powers as speaker, and persuading the others to vote “present” rather than for another candidate, lowering the magic number for election from 218 to 215 votes, which he surpassed by one.

Some of the 21 are familiar thorns in the side of House leadership, while others are freshmen or recently elected representatives looking to make a splash or solidify their position. The majority come from solidly Republican seats. Only a handful are from potentially competitive districts, and some have competitive statewide primaries in their futures 

The Safe Seat Familiars
Many of the anti-McCarthy Republicans have long positioned themselves as anti-establishment figures willing to buck congressional leadership: Andy Biggs (Arizona’s 5th), Dan Bishop (North Carolina’s 9th), Michael Cloud (Texas’ 27th), Paul Gosar (Arizona’s 9th), Bob Good (Virginia’s 5th), Chip Roy (Texas’ 21st), Matt Gaetz (Florida’s 1st), Andy Harris (Maryland’s 1st) and Ralph Norman (South Carolina’s 5th). Trump carried all their districts by between 14.5 points (Harris) and 34 points (Bishop).

Several had voted against McCarthy in previous speaker elections. Biggs and Gosar voted for Jim Jordan in 2019 (along with fellow dissenter Scott Perry of Pennsylvania), and Gaetz and Roy publicly backed Jordan against McCarthy in an earlier conference vote.

Good and Harris both began their congressional careers by defeating incumbent representatives for the GOP nomination. Norman and Gosar previously led the charge to reinstate scandal-plagued Rep. Steve King after the Iowa congressman was removed from his committees. 

In 2021, Biggs, Cloud, Gaetz, Good and Harris, along with fellow McCarthy dissenter Andrew Clyde made up the bulk of the 12-strong Republican contingent voting against awarding Capitol Police officers the Congressional Gold Medal for protecting the Capitol and Members during the Jan. 6 riot.

Biggs and Perry are also the former and current chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, to which 18 of the 21 dissenters belong.

The Newcomers
Another six dissenters also hail from deeply Republican districts and arrived on Capitol Hill in the last two cycles. Josh Brecheen (Oklahoma’s 2nd), Andy Ogles (Tennessee’s 5th) and Keith Self (Texas’ 3rd) are all beginning their first terms. Clyde (Georgia’s 9th), Byron Donalds (Florida’s 19th) and Mary Miller (Illinois’ 15th) are in their second terms. Trump won their seats by anywhere from 11 points (Ogles) to 53 points (Brecheen).

Brecheen and Ogles had to fight their way through crowded primaries that included more moderate alternatives. Brecheen advanced to a primary runoff by just 616 votes in one of the most Republican districts in the country, while Ogles won with 37 percent against a former state House speaker. Self ousted an incumbent GOP member in Van Taylor, albeit with an assist from Taylor’s embarrassing infidelity scandal; Self won just 27 percent of the vote in the primary, forcing Taylor into a runoff before the congressman backed out of the race entirely.

Clyde also narrowly advanced out of a crowded first round primary in 2020 with a second-place finish, and faced several primary challengers in 2022, though he dispatched them easily. His north Georgia district is also one of the most Republican in the country — Trump would have carried it by 38 points.

Donalds initially voted for McCarthy, but switched his vote to Jordan on the second ballot before voting for himself on ballots 4 through 11. He also won a crowded primary in 2020 by a vanishingly narrow 777 votes over an establishment favorite. One of a growing number of Black Republicans in Congress, Donalds is a rising star in the party and this was his biggest moment yet on the national stage.

Miller is also from a very Republican district, but unlike the others won her first primary comfortably, and went on to defeat a well-respected member of the delegation, Rodney Davis, in a member-vs.-member contest caused by redistricting.

The Swing Seats
Just four of McCarthy’s opponents hail from seats that could be competitive in a general election: Lauren Boebert (Colorado’s 3rd), Eli Crane (Arizona’s 2nd), Perry (Pennsylvania’s 10th) and Anna Paulina Luna (Florida’s 13th).

Boebert’s 2022 re-election was the closest race in the country. Although Trump would have carried her district by 8 points, she eked out a 0.2 percent win over Democrat Adam Frisch. Boebert’s eagerness to make headlines likely contributed to her closer-than-expected victory, but her support from the MAGA wing of the party has also been integral to her success, beginning when she ousted establishment-friendly Rep. Scott Tipton in the 2020 primary and beat back state Sen. Don Coram’s more moderate primary challenge 66-34 percent in 2022. Thumbing her nose at McCarthy could boost her standing among those core supporters even as she distances herself from fellow firebrand Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and telegraphs an increased interest in policy issues.

Another swing district holdout, Crane defeated Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran by 8 points after the district was redrawn to be substantially more Republican (Trump would have also carried it by eight). But for the moment, Crane seems more concerned about his standing among primary voters — he defeated several more conservative candidates in last year’s primary with just 36 percent of the vote, and told CNN during the speaker election that “in my district they don’t support Kevin McCarthy.” 

Luna, the other freshman of the bunch, also won a seat redrawn to be more Republican after she emerged from a fractious GOP primary that included accusations of witchcraft and contract killers. Trump would have won her seat by 7 points in 2020. Luna, a 33-year-old Latina Air Force veteran, has pitched herself as the “antidote to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” — her stint as a McCarthy opponent placed her at the forefront of Washington’s biggest story in her first week on the hill.

Perry represents a seat Trump would have won by just 4 points — the narrowest margin of any McCarthy holdout. But that hasn’t stopped him from carving out a stridently conservative record in Washington, including his current time as Freedom Caucus chairman and his substantial involvement in then-President Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Democrats harp on Perry as out-of-step with his district but haven’t been able to oust him despite serious efforts in 2018 and 2020. In 2022, the party did not devote resources against Perry and he won by 8 points.

The 2024 Hopefuls
Two members who did not consistently back McCarthy may have also been motivated by electoral concerns — not in their House districts but in statewide GOP primaries.

Both Matt Rosendale (Montana’s 2nd District) and Victoria Spartz (Indiana’s 5th District) are considering running for Senate seats next year, potentially against House colleagues. Rosendale voted for other candidates until the final ballot, while Spartz voted present on ballots 4 through 11.

In Montana, Rosendale’s anti-McCarthy stance stands in contrast to 1st District Rep. Ryan Zinke, who backed the now-speaker through all 15 ballots and is also considering a Senate run. Rosendale’s move could bolster his profile and his anti-establishment credentials — important in a rugged state such as Montana — but also leave him vulnerable to attack from former President Trump, whose phone call he ignored while on the House floor. Zinke served in Trump’s cabinet.

Spartz is considering a run for Senate in Indiana, in a field that could also include Rep. Jim Banks. Once floated as a potential speaker himself, Banks received one vote from a McCarthy defector in the first round but remained loyal to the Californian. Spartz’s move brought her attention — heightened by her waiting until all the other votes had been cast before casting hers — and she has tried to spin her present votes as a pragmatic measure.

With the primaries at least a year away, it’s unclear how salient the vote for speaker will be next year. But the electoral fate of the Never Kevins could embolden or squash future challenges to leadership.