A once-bullish GOP now sees a smaller House majority in its future, presenting a challenge to McCarthy
By Melanie Zanona and Manu Raju, CNN
(CNN) -- House Republicans are starting to grow pessimistic about their chances of winning a massive majority in the midterm elections, putting some allies of GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy on edge over his future.
While GOP lawmakers are still confident they will be able to recapture the House this fall -- thanks to a map and historical trends that are both in their favor -- there are new concerns inside the party that Democrats might be able to minimize the GOP's gains in November, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Republican lawmakers and aides.
And the size of the GOP's majority matters -- both for McCarthy's ability to secure the speaker's gavel and his ability to govern a Republican conference that has swung increasingly to the right while a crop of the party's moderates and dealmakers have headed for the exits.
Last year, McCarthy bullishly predicted a 60-seat gain, a landslide that would give them a comfortable majority in a chamber where Republicans only need a net gain of four seats to take back power. But now, Republican sources believe that a gain of 15-30 seats is more likely, and they are not ruling out the possibility of a gain in the single digits, a thin majority that would almost certainly give McCarthy headaches.
"I expect a narrow majority for the GOP that may not be all that much greater than what (Nancy) Pelosi has today," said Rep. Fred Upton, a veteran Michigan Republican who is retiring at year's end. "Will be very hard to have any sense of a governing majority."
The fears of a slimmer than expected majority have grown in recent weeks, as Republicans have watched their lead on the generic congressional ballot evaporate, the enthusiasm gap between the two parties narrow and Democrats win some recent special elections and outperform President Joe Biden's margins from 2020.
But top Republicans insist that despite House Democrats' newly found optimism about November, the political environment for Democrats is still bleak, especially since they are defending at least a dozen open seats in competitive districts following a wave of retirements. Plus, the generic ballot in some polls had Republicans down by more than six points in 2020 and they still flipped a dozen seats -- a point McCarthy has made publicly.
"People say, well, the generic ballot has been shifting. Well, I'll ask you this question: What was the generic ballot in the last election?" McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol before the August recess. "I don't know what the generic ballot is going to be. ... I know it's kind of baked in with what the issues are."
And while there are clear signs that the overturning of Roe v. Wade has energized Democrats -- as well as some independents and moderate Republicans -- inflation remains a top concern for voters, and the GOP is confident it's an issue where they have the upper hand.
Still, some nervous Republicans are calling for a strategic plan to deal with a shifting political landscape, especially when it comes to their message and response on abortion rights -- which has so far been disjointed or altogether non-existent.
"We are losing ground because of it," one GOP lawmaker told CNN. "Roe caught Republicans off guard and we haven't used it to paint the left as extreme nor shown any sort of compassion on the issue."
"Republicans want to say, 'inflation,' as if that solves all our problems. It doesn't," the member added.
And with a smaller majority, McCarthy will have to listen to the demands of the hardline House Freedom Caucus -- both in trying to pass his agenda and win the speakership. And behind closed doors, the conservative faction has already engaged in tense exchanges with other elements of the conference, including over the role of the controversial Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, according to sources familiar with the matter.
McCarthy's path to the speakership
McCarthy has been barnstorming the country this August to raise piles of cash and stump for key candidates in his quest to win the majority, including stops in more than two dozen states and a big annual donor retreat in Wyoming.
And next month, McCarthy is planning to roll out a formal policy agenda, with input from seven different member-led task forces, which he hopes members can run on in the fall.
"We are very optimistic about our chances in the House," said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC tied to McCarthy that is blanketing the airwaves in a bid to recapture the majority. "We have the right mix of good recruits, weak incumbents and many open seats from Democrat retirements."
Conston added: "The political environment clearly still favors Republicans even as base Democrat enthusiasm has ticked up some."
McCarthy and his allies also intervened in solidly red districts during the primary season to elect more mainstream and establishment Republicans -- a tacit recognition that it's beneficial for him to build a governing coalition. The effort, however, has seen mixed results, as a number of far-right candidates have prevailed in primaries -- including GOP candidates like Joe Kent in Washington state, who has vowed to not support McCarthy for speaker.
McCarthy remains the undisputed frontrunner for the top job, but a smaller margin means he may need to cut more deals and offer more concessions to lock down the necessary 218 votes to become speaker. Even some of McCarthy's allies have acknowledged that the size of the majority will dictate how easy or rocky his path to the power will be, though they still are confident he will be able to succeed.
"Nothing has changed in my mind, in terms of the political environment," said Rep. Richard Hudson, a member of McCarthy's leadership team. "Republicans are going to do very well in November. Because the American people are upset with the direction of the country, and they blame Joe Biden and the Democrats. ... The only question is, how big the majority is and how pissed off are they?"
Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, a McCarthy ally who lost his primary to a colleague endorsed by Trump, argued that any margin that delivers Republicans a majority will be seen as strong performance. He also noted there is now less low hanging fruit to pick up after the House GOP made surprising gains in the previous election cycle.
"A majority is a victory, because of all the seats no one thought we would actually win the last election," Davis said. "We just don't have a lot of those competitive seats anymore."
Rep. Tom Emmer, the head of the House GOP's campaign arm, has never made bold predictions about the number of seats he thinks they'll scoop up, beyond maintaining they will flip the handful of seats they need to win the majority. All year long, he has hammered home the point to Republicans that nothing is guaranteed and implored them not to get complacent.
"Anyone who thought retaking the majority was going to be easy needs to buck up," said NRCC Communications Director Michael McAdams. "Majorities are won in November not August and we look forward to prosecuting the case against Democrats' failed one-party rule."
But despite Emmer's don't-measure-the-drapes approach, he raised some eyebrows in GOP circles earlier this month when his office publicly confirmed that the Minnesota Republican intends to seek the GOP whip job if they win the majority. Rep. Drew Ferguson, the current deputy whip, has also been aggressively angling for the position; House Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and Rep. Jim Banks are also said to be interested in the post.
GOP hardliners could give McCarthy fits with thin majority
If Republicans do win the House with a slim margin, governing may prove to be challenging and chaotic for Republican leaders, especially with the House Freedom Caucus -- a group known for its hardline tactics and clashes with leadership -- eager to flex its muscles in a majority.
Even in the minority, the group has tried to deliver demands and irritated some of the other wings of the party in the process. During a weekly meeting earlier this year between McCarthy and the leaders of the conference's various ideological groups, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus called on Republicans to stop publicly criticizing Greene, one of Donald Trump's staunchest defenders on Capitol Hill.
The request annoyed other lawmakers in the room, according to a GOP source with direct knowledge of the private conversation, adding that the Freedom Caucus tends to dominate the cross-sectional meetings with leadership. And that may only be a taste of things to come if Republicans recapture the House.
But with Biden still in the White House for at least the next two years, a GOP-led House would be primarily focused on oversight and investigation, where the party is largely in agreement.
Still, must-pass bills to prevent government shutdowns and address a looming debt ceiling crisis could create massive headaches for Republican leaders.
"I don't know what major legislative packages anyone thinks we can get done in a divided government. The key in this divided government is going to be oversight -- and I think a lot of Freedom Caucus members are excited about that prospect," Davis said.
"Government funding can be a headache, depending on what the majority looks like, but keep in mind: Nancy Pelosi was able to keep her very slim majority together in a very polarized environment."
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