Kevin McCarthy wasn’t ‘the one’ 7 years ago. He wasn’t on Tuesday, either.

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), seated at right, reacts after Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), front left, nominates him for House speaker on the opening day of the 118th Congress on Jan. 3, 2023, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Kevin McCarthy stared into the abyss and realized defeat was at hand.

“I’m not the one,” the California Republican told fellow House Republicans, emerging from the huddle to deliver the same message. “We need a fresh face,” he told reporters.

That was in 2015, and seven years later, the answer has remained the same. After spending all that time trying to mollify a right-wing flank that never trusted him, including genuflecting before President Donald Trump’s whims, McCarthy again faced utter rejection on Tuesday in his second bid for House speaker.

Rather than bow out peacefully before voting began this time, McCarthy sat in his aisle chair for three rounds of votes, twiddling his glasses, shifting in his chair, whispering to a senior aide.

Nothing changed. A rump group of 19 Republicans, then 20 on the last vote, refused to support him and instead chose conservative alternatives. He became the first lawmaker to be nominated by the majority party and get denied the vote on initial ballots in 100 years, and his fate was left in limbo when lawmakers agreed to shut down the House and try again Wednesday afternoon.

There is no speaker of the House. McCarthy could still win the vote Wednesday, and his top allies remained on the House floor late Tuesday to strategize and talk to some anti-McCarthy Republicans even as security turned down the lights.

McCarthy retreated to an office just off the House floor that is afforded to the speaker – a room that, like all the others for the majority party, has no name plates or labels on it because there’s so much uncertainty about who will end up in which job.

But for all intents and purposes, it has become clear again, at least for the moment: Kevin Owen McCarthy, 57, is not the one. And Republicans may need a new face.

Ever since entering Congress 16 years ago, McCarthy believed in the power of relationships, learning the names and birthdays of his colleagues’ spouses and children. The House gym and special workout regimens were his favorite haunt, learning what made members tick.

One internal enemy who McCarthy eventually won over called him “a savant of relationships,” with the goal always out in the open: winning the speaker’s gavel.

Yet all those years of making friends left him with the type of political support that makes a congressional leader popular but not beloved – and certainly not feared.

His support has always been a mile wide and only a few inches deep inside the Republican conference. A solid bloc of 15 to 20 hard-line conservatives never took to his back slaps or invites to go on bike rides.

They saw in him what he essentially is: a non-ideological lawmaker without much policy substance who really just enjoys political campaigns and tactics.

His lurch rightward, particularly traveling to Trump’s resort to make peace with him after he instigated the 2021 attack on the Capitol, did nothing to placate them. He rarely meted out punishment when they said outrageous things or attended racist events, reinforcing their belief that all he cared about was getting their votes some day for speaker.

After four years as minority leader, McCarthy promised that the November midterm elections would produce such a large majority that he wouldn’t need to cater to the hard-liners.

In a classic case of overpromising and under-delivering, McCarthy only produced a majority of 222 Republicans. That left just four votes to spare on the speaker ballot that begins each Congress and on any piece of legislation that Democrats unite against.

So those archconservatives, led by Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), held McCarthy and the entire House GOP hostage for weeks after the midterms. A group that basically admits their deceitfulness upfront, they issued many demands for internal rule changes in their many meetings with McCarthy and other Republicans.

Over objections from the moderate Republicans who face tough elections in swing districts, McCarthy gave in to almost all of these demands from Gaetz and friends.

And, in a spectacularly bad form of negotiating, McCarthy gave in to the hostages without any promise of support in return.

“A brief and productive discussion,” Gaetz said Monday night as he left a meeting with McCarthy.

It was anything but productive for McCarthy. Gaetz led the charge Tuesday afternoon, using a brief floor speech a few feet away from McCarthy to urge Republicans to vote for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a conservative leader who had just used his own speech to try to round up support for McCarthy.

The second-ballot votes matched the first round: Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, had 212, McCarthy had 203. In this round, Jordan collected all 19 votes from the anti-McCarthy flank.

Unlike in 2015, McCarthy tried to master the brave face for weeks leading up to the vote and said he would march onto the floor vote, over and over if necessary.

“We stay in until we win,” he told reporters just off the House floor during a break Tuesday.

What would happen?

“It will eventually change,” he insisted. “I know the path.”

The path changed. It got worse for McCarthy. Another Republican joined the rebels and voted for Jordan, leaving the putative GOP leader 16 votes shy of winning the gavel when the House shuttered Tuesday.

McCarthy even missed hearing the clerk call his name during that alphabetical roll call, needing a colleague to nudge him to vote “McCarthy.”

The early shouts of support for McCarthy faded as the voting went on, getting softer and less boisterous, as even his close allies realized his future had grown bleak.

McCarthy’s hopes for votes to change went up against the axiom honed by seasoned congressional leaders, particularly Tom DeLay, the former Republican whip and leader, and the outgoing House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

They lived by the rule that bringing up bills that failed was deeply counterproductive, because lawmakers lock in their “no” vote – or, in this case, their vote against McCarthy.

It’s very difficult to get lawmakers to change their votes, save something major like a terrorist attack or financial calamity.

“There’s something wrong with this picture when we are talking about having one vote and having another vote,” Pelosi said in a brief interview off the floor, adding that it’s a big mistake “if you don’t really know you’re going to win.”

Rep.-elect Kat Cammack (R-Fla.), who served as chief of staff to a member who joined an unsuccessful revolt 10 years ago, said the strategy was to force the malcontents to show their hands during the roll call, saying they would fold just like the 2013 uprising failed to oust then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

“The dynamics on the House floor changed dramatically,” Cammack said while exiting a morning GOP meeting, “from when you’re talking in front of cameras, to when you’re sitting there having to face your friends, your family and your colleagues on the House floor. Funny things happen on the House floor.”

Nothing funny happened on the floor, at least not for McCarthy.

Years of bending to conservative demands produced the same result. After his 2015 demise, with Jordan as his main antagonist, McCarthy ceded the way for his friend, Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), to become speaker.

He became minority leader after Republicans lost the majority in 2018 and Ryan retired, then set out to make peace with Jordan, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus. “He’s standing next to me now instead of shooting at me,” McCarthy bragged in a 2019 interview.

And McCarthy remained close with Trump, even during his most erratic days during the pandemic and after the Capitol riot.

Yet on Tuesday, McCarthy’s opponents were Republicans most closely aligned with Jordan and Trump.

In the 2019 interview, during a GOP retreat in Baltimore, McCarthy explained a motto he has lived by: “Whatever job I’m given, surpass expectations and there will always be more opportunity for you.”

He underperformed expectations in November, and now it’s not clear if there will be any more opportunities.