McCarthy’s politically expensive election leaves a hard road forward

Published 2:16 pm Wednesday, January 11, 2023

By Sid Salter

American citizens last week learned a new phrase in the nation’s political lexicon, one not heard 14 consecutive times on Capitol Hill since before the Civil War: “No person having received a majority of the whole number of votes cast by surname, a speaker has not been elected.”

With much dignity, House Clerk Cheryl L. Johnson recited that phrase 14 times after each failed vote on McCarthy’s path to finally winning a majority on the 15th vote. When Johnson was finally able to report the results of the 15th vote that elected McCarthy as the new speaker, the chamber gave her a standing ovation.

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Without that threshold being attained, the 118th Congress could not be sworn into office, form committees, or begin the business of governing. That was the practical impact. But the political damage to the Republican Party who saw the speaker’s choice derailed by a group of backbenchers and political showmen from within their own party was nothing if not embarrassing and harmful.

The GOP rump group, a minority of around 20, could not begin to elect a speaker from their ranks. But they could block the process for the Republican House majority and force McCarthy to substantially weaken the position of speaker and his own ability to negotiate across the political aisle with Democrats moving forward.

It was the most protracted battle to elect the U.S. House Speaker since 1859 when it took 44 ballots to elect Republican William Pennington speaker – and the toughest fight since 1923 when it took GOP Speaker Frederick Gillett nine ballots to be reelected to the post.

After the 15th ballot, Johnson was able to announce: “The Honorable Kevin McCarthy of the State of California, having received a majority of the votes cast is duly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives.

After the four-day political bloodbath that McCarty navigated to win the speakership, McCarthy rapped the gavel and deadpanned: “That was easy, huh?”

During his time as a Republican Leader, one of McCarthy’s key staffers has been 2008 Mississippi State University alumna Natalie Buchanan Joyce, a Madison native. Joyce serves as the Deputy Chief of Staff, Member Services for McCarthy.

In that capacity, Joyce served as a liaison between McCarthy and GOP members dealing with their chairmanship appointments and committee assignments. While serving as the GOP Leaders, McCarthy visited MSU to deliver the keynote address when former Third District U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper donated his personal and political papers to MSU’s Mississippi Political Collection in Mitchell Memorial Library.

MSU’s Mississippi Political Collections provide access to materials from national, state, and local lawmakers, politicians, activists, judges, and researchers – including the papers of the late U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, the late U.S. Rep. G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, former U.S. Rep. Mike Espy, and a host of other policymakers.

McCarthy’s support in Mississippi’s congressional delegation breaks predictably along party lines. Not only were McCarthy’s concessions in the Speaker’s race politically costly to the operation of the House under his leadership, but they came at a time when the GOP is seeking to plot a course forward in the aftermath of the administration of former Republican President Donald Trump.

The 2022 midterm elections saw voters send mixed messages. While the predicted “red wave” in favor of the GOP failed to materialize, voters did give Republicans a means to impede the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden. 

With narrow Democrat control of the Senate and narrow GOP control of the House, the likelihood of the political needle moving dramatically from current policies between now and the 2024 elections are slim.

While Speaker McCarthy’s initial agenda is focused on spending cuts, increased border security and fighting so-called “woke indoctrination” – the split leadership of Congress would indicate that any real movement to the center or compromise with Democrats will be difficult if not impossible for McCarthy to navigate.

One key early indicator of McCarthy’s impact in Mississippi will be new Fourth District GOP U.S. Rep. Mike Ezell’s committee assignments.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at