The likely Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, narrow as it may end up being, will effectively end the legislative period of the Joe Biden presidency and usher in what’s sure to be an even more contentious era. One of its most important players will be Representative Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who’s all but certain to become the next House speaker once the 118th Congress is gaveled in on Jan. 3. No figure better illustrates the party’s internal tensions—tensions that, if McCarthy doesn’t manage them, could quickly cause a market crisis or upend geopolitical stability.
Tuesday’s election didn’t produce the red wave many people anticipated, but it still shattered the Democrats’ narrow governing coalition and put McCarthy, who’s long sought the speakership, on the cusp of a personal triumph. Denied the job in 2015, when distrustful House conservatives spurned him in favor of Paul Ryan, McCarthy redoubled his efforts to raise money and win over, or at least appease, the hostile elements in the Republican caucus. This entailed courting not just the likes of Donald Trump but also radical right-wing figures such as Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona. In the process, McCarthy earned a reputation as a prolific fundraiser and tireless glad-hander, and as a political weathervane willing to sacrifice principle and dignity in service of ambition. “Kevin came down to kiss my ass and wants my help to win the House back,” Trump told journalist Bob Woodward after McCarthy’s controversial pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago in Florida following the Capitol insurrection.