House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy stunned Washington — and much of America — on Thursday afternoon when he abruptly withdrew his bid to become the next speaker of the House.
All indications were that the California Republican was aggressively campaigning for the job, and was easily the odds-on favorite to win it. "No one saw this coming," as NBC's Luke Russert said today, noting that at as recently as 8 a.m., McCarthy had clearly reiterated his interest in succeeding John Boehner.
By all accounts, McCarthy was on track to easily win the preliminary GOP conference vote today, though he was still short of the 218 votes he would have needed to win the speakership on the floor. But it's not like anyone else was close to the requisite number of votes.
McCarthy, of course, stumbled badly over his recent Benghazi comments — giving Hillary Clinton fodder to accuse House Republicans of some vast right-wing conspiracy against her — but again, that didn't seem to deter him as recently as this morning. As such, McCarthy's sudden and shocking decision has led sources on the Hill to speculate that something must have changed.
One thing clearly did change. Last night, the Freedom Caucus decided to back rival Rep. Dan Webster of Florida for the speakership. It's plausible that McCarthy didn't want the job after the conservative Freedom Caucus showed they were going to make his life hell.
But there's more. Many conservatives are buzzing over rumors — and let's be clear, they are unsubstantiated rumors that both parties deny — that McCarthy had carried on an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.). And indeed, Ellmers had a rather interesting quote in The Hill today that can plausibly be read as dovetailing with the rumors. "[McCarthy] has not spoken to me personally for my vote, and Jason Chaffetz has, so that's where I am right now," she said, adding: "I'm apparently not high on his priority list."
Let's be clear: Both McCarthy and Ellmers deny the affair, and there is nothing beyond rumors suggesting it. (Ellmers sent a cease-and-desist letter to a website reporting allegations of the affair.) But as RedState's Erick Erickson writes, the veracity of the allegation may not even matter to McCarthy's political career: "[T]he rumor itself may have led to McCarthy's collapse. It has become a louder buzz over the past few days with more and more people on and off the Hill talking about it. Once Ellmers' odd quote was out there, the buzzing became chatter."
Add to the whole weird mix this, from a letter that Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) wrote to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.):
With all the voter distrust of Washington felt around the country, I am asking that any candidate for speaker of the House, majority leader, and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public. [via Politico]
Of course, putting aside the palace intrigue, all of this has enormous implications for the GOP and the nation. The GOP's presidential primary race legitimately risks nominating Donald Trump and descending into a parody. And now the Republican-controlled Congress is in total chaos. No one wants to be speaker (not even obvious savior Paul Ryan). All of this comes with the backdrop of a coming debt ceiling deadline in November that comes before another big budget vote in December.
What a mess. Could Republicans have imagined a more nightmarish series of political events a year out from a presidential election? Sadly, I doubt it.