Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy stunned Washington on Thursday when he dropped out of the race to the next Speaker of the House.
The California Republican was poised to receive his party’s nod to replace outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) but during a mid-day meeting with House Republicans McCarthy said he was not the one to unite the fractious GOP conference.
In a statement, Boehner said he will stay on. "I will serve as Speaker until the House votes to elect a new Speaker.”
McCarthy faced a stiff uphill climb to reach the 218 votes needed in a House floor vote that was slated to take place on Oct. 29. That vote has now been postponed.
Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Daniel Webster (R-FL) were also running for the speakership but neither was expected to have enough votes to win the gavel.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus, with its forty-or-so members, has endorsed Webster for the speakership.
Freedom Caucus chair Jim Jordan (R-OH) had said the group planned to vote as a bloc during the floor vote and that the party’s pick for speaker would need to make major concessions on issues like the debt ceiling and funding the government in order to receive their support.
“I think I shocked some of you, huh?” McCarthy, who will stay on as majority leader, said to reporters shortly after the fateful meeting.
Flanked by his family, McCarthy said that if Republicans were going to “unite and be strong” the GOP would “need a fresh face to help do that.”
The California lawmaker said he didn’t want to win the speakership with a bare majority of votes and hoped that the eventual winner would receive all 247 Republican votes when the election is held.
McCarthy admitted that his statement last week about Hillary Clinton, implying that the House’s Benghazi investigation was aimed at hurting her presidential bid, “wasn’t helpful.” The gaffe led some lawmakers to question whether McCarthy would be a good messenger for their party.
Speculation about who could step up to replace McCarthy started immediately, with several members mentioning Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chair of the Ways and Means Committee.
However, he took himself out of the running almost as fast.
"Kevin McCarthy is best person to lead the House, and so I’m disappointed in this decision," he said in a statement. "Now it is important that we, as a conference, take time to deliberate and seek new candidates for the speakership," he continued. "While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate. I continue to believe I can best serve the country and this conference as chairman of the Ways and Means committee.”
Outside of Congress, a coalition of right-wing activists had been agitating against McCarthy. Larry Ward, the chair of the Constitutional Right PAC and president of Political Media, spearheaded the “Fire McCarthy” effort, which garnered support from a large number of conservative grassroots groups.
“We did it,” Ward said triumphantly shortly after McCarthy’s announcement. “I’m a little bit happy today. We were working the Hill, working the phones, working the grass roots.”
The mood on Capitol Hill Thursday may have been one of utter shock, but Ward insisted that he and his fellow conservative activists had seen the writing on the wall. “We did see it coming, particularly after the Freedom Caucus stood tall.”
However, he said his group doesn’t think the battle is over.
“I’m a little concerned because they postponed the election, which means they are probably going to try to throw another establishment hack in there,” Ward said. “But they had better be careful, because we’re ready for another fight.”
He added, “We’re going to flex our grassroots muscle and let them know that, quite frankly, they can’t keep throwing RINO after RINO at us.” (RINO, an acronym for “Republican in Name Only” is a term often applied to politicians deemed insufficiently conservative by the right wing.)
Asked whether his group would support Ryan, who despite his statement that he will not run remains a favorite among many in the GOP, Ward was cautious, arguing that Ryan has lost some of his luster among grassroots conservatives for cooperating with Democrats on a budget deal in 2014, among other things.
“Would we support Paul Ryan? The prior-to-2012 Paul Ryan? Yes. This Paul Ryan? I’d have to take a much closer look,” Ward said.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who has never held political office and rocketed to the front of the polls by railing against Washington, welcomed the news.
“Great, Kevin McCarthy drops out of SPEAKER race. We need a really smart and really tough person to take over this very important job!” he said in a tweet.