House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is avoiding endorsing Donald Trump’s potential third White House bid, and is risking drawing the former president’s ire. However, this move is aimed at preventing a divisive internal conflict within the House GOP over the 2024 presidential election. While many members of McCarthy’s party have already expressed support for Trump, others, especially those in swing seats, are hesitant to align with the former President, fearing electoral consequences. McCarthy’s neutrality provides political cover for vulnerable members while pressure mounts on him to choose sides. The intertwined fates of McCarthy and Trump will become more evident as the presidential race intensifies, but a premature endorsement from McCarthy could be too risky for the party at this point in time.
By Sarah Ferris & Olivia Beavers; July 7, 2023
Kevin McCarthy is risking Donald Trump’s wrath by not officially endorsing his third White House bid, but the speaker is also fulfilling an important mission: sparing the House GOP a civil war over 2024.
While scores of McCarthy’s members have already backed Trump, plenty of other Republicans are steering clear of the polarizing former president in the GOP primary. That camp includes virtually every swing-seat lawmaker, many of whom fear that embracing Trump could spell their electoral doom next fall — as well as allies of Trump’s rivals, from Ron DeSantis to Doug Burgum.
So as much as McCarthy might risk alienating Trump by staying on the sidelines, the California Republican also provides the most political cover he can to his vulnerable members. The pressure on the speaker to choose sides will only grow throughout the summer, though, as Trump locks down support across the House GOP and questions intensify about why McCarthy isn’t fully embracing the man who helped deliver him the speakership.
Some Republicans already view McCarthy as a Trump backer in all but name. Pro-Trump Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.) suggested that the speaker is subtly clearing a path for his members to rally behind the former president by the end of the primary.
Meuser summed up McCarthy’s 2024 message to House Republicans this way: “‘Hey, you’re with DeSantis right now. That’s OK. We get that. You’re with Mike Pence, Tim Scott. But in the end, we’ve got to come together with who’s going to be our winning candidate.’”
Another House conservative, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said that a Trump endorsement might only make matters worse for McCarthy and his “incredibly split” conference.
“The reality is, if we get Trump, there’s probably a good possibility that we don’t keep the House” next fall, said this conservative, who has not endorsed in the primary. “McCarthy knows that. He knows that if Trump’s on top of the ticket, that we probably lose New York and California. … If we lose the House, there’s no way McCarthy stays as minority leader. He’s gone.”
That leaves McCarthy in a difficult position amid his party’s long primary battle. He controls one of the smallest majorities in modern House history, where a handful of disgruntled members can force a vote to remove him at any time,. At the same time, McCarthy is facing a brutal map to keep the House in 2024 — one that will become even more forbidding if the twice-indicted Trump emerges as the nominee.
Perhaps the one thing all of McCarthy’s members can agree on is that the fates of McCarthy and Trump will become even more intertwined as the presidential race heats up. Which explains why though some of Trump’s allies may want McCarthy to wade into the presidential campaign, the same can’t be said across the GOP conference.
Several Republican lawmakers said that a McCarthy endorsement this early could exact a political toll on House Republicans by sparking disunity and infighting across different GOP factions — divisions that could seep into the rest of their agenda.
“There’s not a person who is more black and white, who is more hot and cold, who is more politically divisive than Trump,” said one centrist Republican who represents a district that President Joe Biden carried in 2020. “So, while McCarthy spent six months keeping us all together, it’s like the worst thing that you can do is take a stance for or against Trump.”
That’s not always an easy needle for McCarthy to thread. The speaker backtracked last week after questioning whether Trump was the strongest candidate for the party to run in 2024, telling conservative Breitbart News that the former president “is stronger today than he was in 2016.”
A spokesperson for McCarthy’s political arm responded to a request for comment for this story with the same statement printed in Breitbart, blaming the media for “attempting to drive a wedge between President Trump and House Republicans as our committees are holding Biden’s DOJ accountable for their two-tiered levels of Justice.”
Things are much different for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican, who remains neutral in the GOP primary, was never expected to back Trump given their fraught personal history, and he’s been focused on winning back the Senate.
But while McConnell has taken painstaking steps to untether himself from the former president, that level of distance isn’t tenable for McCarthy. The speaker’s relationship with Trump has often affected his standing with his more conservative members.
McConnell is also facing a much more favorable electoral 2024 map than McCarthy, who’s in a tossup battle to hold onto the House.
With just a five-seat margin, some in the GOP worry their grip on the majority is particularly tenuous in a presidential year. Nearly a dozen GOP-held battleground seats sit in the deep blue, high-turnout states of New York and California.
Among the 18 House Republicans sitting in Biden-friendly turf nationwide, only one has made an endorsement in the 2024 primary. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) backed Trump in May, just days before Santos was indicted on a string of federal charges that are considered a death knell for his reelection.
For now, Republicans say McCarthy and his leadership team are focused on their conference’s work before next November, not their ultimate fate with voters. It’s not just McCarthy staying out of the primary, either: His two deputies, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), have also stopped short of endorsing Trump this time around.
House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and conference campaign chief Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) have both backed Trump, as has the Senate GOP’s campaign arm chief, Montana’s Steve Daines.
Trump remains the clear favorite of the House GOP conference. He has amassed roughly 60 endorsements from House Republicans, securing majorities of the delegations from Florida, Tennessee and Pennsylvania in recent weeks.
Florida Gov. DeSantis, who is a distant second in polling, has secured just five House endorsements.
Photo: Francis Chung/POLITICO