Donald Trump still has a hammer lock on the Republican Party. That was amply demonstrated in the days after all but seven Senate Republicans voted to acquit Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Of those who joined the bipartisan rebuke of Trump’s conduct and voted to convict, Sen. Richard Burr and Bill Cassidy have been censured by their state parties, while the other five face calls for their censure.
Yet an even clearer and starker indication of the hold Trump still has on the GOP came much earlier, on Jan. 28, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy flew to Mar-a-Lago to meet with him. The topic? How to take back the House in 2022. This came on the heels of McCarthy voting to object to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, hours after the insurrection—thus not only giving succor to the insurrection, but to the false claims of election fraud that triggered it.
It is impossible to overstate just how outrageous this was. The leader of the House Republicans, the second most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill, saw fit to publicly kiss the ring of a man who spent months attempting to steal a second term—an effort which culminated in a deadly insurrection that came frighteningly close to claiming the lives of members of both chambers of Congress (and the vice president). And yet, as near as can be determined, McCarthy has faced almost no blowback for it, nor for effectively promoting the Big Lie by voting to object.
To be sure, Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz have gotten well-deserved scorn, and even calls for their expulsion, for their “leadership” in the effort to object to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Sen. Lindsey Graham has crassly declared that the GOP needs Trump’s help to win. He has been pilloried in the reality-based community for this, and rightly so. But it is one thing for backbench senators to subvert the will of the American people. It is quite another for the leader of the House Republicans to do so.
McCarthy objected to Biden’s victory, and then embraced Trump, despite knowing full well that Trump had told the biggest lie in a political career shot through with them. The fact that McCarthy hasn’t had his feet held to the fire for either of these outrages can only be described as political malpractice of the highest order. It’s long past time to correct that oversight.
Minutes after the insurrection died down and the Capitol had been finally secured, Dave “I’ve seen enough” Wasserman, House editor of Cook Political Report, tweeted that McCarthy had acknowledged what the nation already knew: Trump had lost the election.
Wasserman doubled down the next day, noting that McCarthy objected to the certification of Biden’s victory even after repeatedly acknowledging to Wasserman that Biden had won. Then, five days after the insurrection, Wasserman revealed that McCarthy had previously told him that if Trump made good on his repeated threats to reject any result other than his reelection, he knew he’d have to enter the fray.
McCarthy knew that Trump was blowing smoke when he claimed the election had been stolen. And yet, McCarthy remained silent even in the face of reports of election officials being harassed, trolled, and threatened due to these claims. He remained silent even as an employee at Dominion Voting Systems was forced into hiding after being targeted with vicious smears and threats.
When I first saw these reports, my thoughts turned to Frank DiPascali, who helped Bernie Madoff run his Ponzi scheme from 1986 until Madoff’s arrest in December 2008. Though he died before he could be sentenced, DiPascali pleaded guilty to his role in the racket, nine months after Madoff’s scheme imploded. He admitted that he had known since at least the early 1990s that Madoff wasn’t trading. And yet, not only did DiPascali squander numerous chances to come clean over the previous two decades, but he actually helped Madoff further the scheme. For instance, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, when Madoff realized he was on the brink of collapse, DiPascali persuaded Madoff to use the remaining balance in Madoff’s now-infamous Chase account to cut $350 million in checks to relatives and favored investors.
McCarthy’s behavior in the months after the election isn’t much different from DiPascali’s behavior in the last two decades of Madoff’s fraud. Based on Wasserman’s accounts, McCarthy knew the Big Lie was, well, a lie—and he didn’t do a damn thing about it. He didn’t speak out publicly, nor did he tell Jim Jordan, Mo Brooks, Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the rest of the Sedition Caucus to call off their plans to object.
This was a time where the leader of the House Republicans had a chance to, you know, lead. In this case, it was a chance that McCarthy was morally, and almost certainly legally and constitutionally, required to take. He blew that chance eight ways to Sunday. In so doing, McCarthy did something that, on paper, takes a lot of effort: For a time, he made McConnell look like a paragon of integrity.
What in the world could McCarthy have been thinking, you might ask? Well, one answer can be found in a profile that The New York Times ran on him in January, days after Trump was impeached for a second time. McCarthy was getting a lot of blowback from Republican constituents back home in California’s 23rd district, based in Bakersfield and the Central Valley, for not being supportive enough of Trump. When McCarthy publicly stated that Trump bore responsibility for the attack during the certification of the Electoral College votes, hours after the Capitol had been secured, it ruffled a lot of feathers among his Republican constituents. According to The Times, at least one local tea party activist, who ran against McCarthy in 2016, is giving serious thought to primarying McCarthy again in 2022. Before Trump, it would have been unthinkable for a party leader in the House to face a substantive primary challenge.
McCarthy may have taken a trip to Florida to smooth things over back home in Bakersfield, but he seems to have forgotten that he is not only the congressman for CA-23, he is also the leader of the House Republicans. As such, he would have the inside track to becoming speaker if the GOP retakes the House. If McCarthy has any ambitions of peeling off swing voters and suburbanites in 2022, being seen publicly with a man who stirred up a deadly insurrection can only be described as an unforced error. It’s particularly outrageous when combined with the fact that he knew Trump had lost and said nothing for months.
Recall that in 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi caught a lot of scorn from the right for ripping up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union speech. Self-promoting conservative law professor (and Fox News pundit) Jonathan Turley went as far as to call for Pelosi to step down saying that she forgot she was representing the whole House.
McCarthy’s meeting with Trump is far, far worse. There is something wrong if merely ripping a copy of a speech draws more hackles than meeting with a president who spread pernicious lies about an election being stolen, then incited a deadly insurrection to overturn his defeat. By meeting with Trump, McCarthy thumbed his nose at the many police officers who were injured, including one who died in the line of duty and two others who died by suicide soon after. He thumbed his nose at those who were harassed, trolled, and threatened as a result of the Big Lie that he knew it was a lie. That’s hardly behavior becoming of someone with ambitions of representing the whole House.
McCarthy will never resign, of course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make him answer for his misdeeds. According to the latest Cook Partisan Voting Index, there are only four districts in California with ratings of R+10 or worse. McCarthy sits in one of them; with a PVI of R+14, on paper, it’s the reddest district in the state. There’s no denying it: This district is one of the few red smudges left in a state that has turned an unrecognizable shade of blue. But the trendline suggests that if done right, a Democrat can at least keep McCarthy tied down.
Bakersfield is undergoing considerable demographic change, for one thing. Once dominated by the descendants of people who fled Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas during the Dust Bowl, figures from the 2010 census showed Bakersfield was 45% Latino and 38% non-Hispanic white. According to The New York Times’ profile from January, Bakersfield is now majority Latino. This shift suggests that the city’s Latino population is growing too rapidly for neighboring CA-21, which has long served most of the Latinos in the Fresno-Bakersfield corridor.
Add that to the fact that McCarthy’s district as a whole is currently just barely majority white, at 50.5%. Wasserman suggested earlier this month that CA-23 could potentially become whiter and more Republican in redistricting. But that seems hard to believe if Bakersfield is already majority Latino, or close to it. While Wasserman argues that it’s very likely the state’s nonpartisan redistricting commission will create two Latino-majority districts in the Fresno-Bakersfield corridor, mathematically it’s hard to see how the 23rd would not absorb more Latino voters if its central city is already majority-Latino. Coupled with the right candidate, policies, and outreach, this shift can only help Democrats.
Beyond demographic shifts and redistricting, Trump actually underperformed in a McCarthy’s district, which the Grey Lady describes as an area with “bobbing oil pump jacks (that) dot the landscape like a page out of West Texas,” with a strong historical bent of social conservatism. In other words, classic MAGA territory. According to the latest numbers crunched by the folks at Daily Kos Elections, while Mitt Romney won this district over Obama 61-36 in 2012, Trump only won it 58-36 in 2016 and 57-41 in 2020. Contrast that with IA-04, the former balliwick of Steve King, now held by Randy Feenstra. It swung from a 53-45 win for Romney to a 61-33 win for Trump in 2016 and 63-36 in 2020. Or OH-05, Jim Jordan’s domain. It swung from a 56-42 win for Romney to a 64-31 win for Trump in 2016 and 67-32 in 2020. What’s more, in 2020, McCarthy sits in the only district in the Fresno-Bakersfield corridor, long one of the more conservative parts of the state, where Trump won by double digits.
Moreover, McCarthy’s own winning percentages have been tailing off. After winning his first five terms with 70% or more of the vote, his totals have actually dwindled since Trump: 69% in 2016, 63% in 2018, and 61% in 2020. It’s no coincidence that McCarthy’s vote totals have tailed off as his Democratic challengers have spent more money. His 2016 challenger only raised $35,300 for the entire cycle. By comparison, his 2018 challenger raised $106,000; an improvement, but still nothing to write home about. His 2020 challenger, Kim Mangone, raised $1.6 million … not what you’d expect for a Democrat in an R+14 district.
If the blue team plays it right, McCarthy could potentially face a reckoning back home for first remaining silent the wake of the Big Lie, and then kissing Trump’s hand after said lie triggered an insurrection. There’s already at least one Democrat running against him: naval veteran and ironworker Bruno Amato.
Looking at his website, Amato doesn’t have the look of the sacrificial lambs and Some Dudes that typically surface in districts that are R+10 or worse. Moreover, it’s not often that you see Democrats already stepping up to run in districts this red.
Amato has a lot of work ahead of him, as will any other Democrat challenging McCarthy. This is a tough, tough district. But given the prospect that he’ll be running in a district that will be a bit more Latino than its predecessor, there’s a chance that he’ll be in a position to give McCarthy heartburn.
But we can do even better than that. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Sean Patrick Maloney should tie McCarthy’s duplicity about the Big Lie around the GOP like an anchor. For the last two cycles, the Republicans have tried to position the Democrats as a radical socialist mob. It would more than even the score to point out that the leader of the House Republicans remained silent about the Big Lie despite knowing that it was a lie, even after that lie stirred up an actual mob. That he did so to put out fires back home is no excuse, and Maloney and his team ought to remind the nation that this is not the kind of behavior we should expect from the likely Speaker of a Republican-led House. If swing voters and suburbanites recoil from McCarthy over his embrace of Trump, it will all but assure that the GOP stays in the minority.
One way or another, McCarthy must answer for behaving beneath the dignity of someone who has ambitions of becoming Speaker. We can make McCarthy do some heavy lifting in his own district, tie his duplicity around the entire House Republican Conference, or some combination of the two. Either way, McCarthy must learn that when you have ambitions of representing the whole House, you cannot forsake your oath in the name of keeping the wolves from your door back home.