As a prolonged battle over who would lead the House as its next speaker stretched into its third day Thursday, the Republican Party appeared rudderless, unable to break a gridlock between hardliners and the rest of the conference that had been building since the Tea Party revolution of the last decade.
As Kevin McCarthy sought to broker a truce—even negotiating across the aisle to break the impasse—the right wing of the GOP appeared immovable, robbing him of the votes he needs to win the speaker’s gavel in seven consecutive ballots.
Even former President Donald Trump, long considered the leader of the party, appeared to have little sway on the debate, drawing rebukes from some of his most loyal foot soldiers on the floor of the House.
“Even having my favorite president call us and tell us we need to knock this off,” Boebert said on the House floor Wednesday ahead of the fifth round of voting. “I think it actually needs to be reversed. The president needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, sir, you do not have the votes, and it’s time to withdraw.”
Some, like Trump’s former chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, reiterated Thursday that McCarthy was the only logical choice to lead the conference, and that the dissenters were doing little more than obstructing the process. Others, however, lamented McCarthy’s seeming inability to rally his conference as a sign of a party that was rudderless, and in need of leadership.
Someone like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
“Wanna know who looks good right now and focusing on his state, constituents and staying out of the chaos and mayhem?” conservative media personality Meghan McCain tweeted on Wednesday. “DeSantis. DeSantis looks good right now.”
Where McCarthy’s GOP faltered in an election season they were expected to dominate, DeSantis has led a conservative revolution in the Sunshine State, with skyrocketing Republican voter registration totals and dominating performances for candidates all the way down the ballot in an election year some believed could be competitive. DeSantis even outperformed Trump in a number of counties around the state, indicating a broader appeal than others in the GOP.
DeSantis also has something that McCarthy and Trump do not: the solid support of his legislature. DeSantis has faced little resistance to his agenda in deep-red Florida, while insurgent conservative movements like the State Freedom Caucus Network that have appeared in other red-dominant states like South Carolina, Arizona and South Dakota has been largely kept at-bay.
Meanwhile, McCarthy finds himself struggling to bolster the support of nearly two-dozen of his most conservative conference members. Even though Republicans regained control of the House, this cycle, McCarthy had presided over one of the most disappointing midterm election cycles for Republicans in a generation, causing him to lose the confidence of a critical part of his base.
In Congress, his deal-making with the extremes of the party have also taken a hit. Whether he offered the carrot of favorable rule changes and committee assignments or the stick of losing power in the upcoming Congress, McCarthy simply could not bring his conference into line.
“Even if he wins, Kevin McCarthy doesn’t command the respect of his colleagues and will likely be ineffective as speaker,” Eric Matheny, a conservative radio host, tweeted after McCarthy’s seventh straight defeat Thursday. “This isn’t about just selecting someone to hold the position; it’s about party leadership and setting the tone for the next 2 years of legislative agenda.”
DeSantis, some argue, is the paragon of what a leader of the conservative movement should be.
As infighting continued on Capitol Hill, Byron York—a conservative journalist and chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner—wrote a piece dissecting the contrasts between the Beltway chaos and the relative calm of inauguration day in Tallahassee, where the Florida governor delivered a speech on his future for the country as he enters his second term leading the state.
Much of what DeSantis said that day was standard fare for the Republican Party: Concerns over the integrity of the southern border. Fears over the national debt, and bipartisan embrace of rampant government spending. An out-of-control federal bureaucracy.
The primary difference between DeSantis and the rest of them, however, lies in the execution of that agenda—and conservatives’ distrust of McCarthy’s aisle-crossing style.
“The contrast between DeSantis’s speech and what was happening, at that very moment, in the House of Representatives could not have been greater,” York wrote on Wednesday.
“In Washington, Republicans are falling apart in the absence of leadership. Multiple agendas are at play, and no leader is strong to force competing factions to work with each other. Nationally, the GOP is in a moment of deep uncertainty about the course of its leadership: Will it be former President Donald Trump, now running a listless and erratic third presidential campaign, or someone new?”
So far, DeSantis’ office has stayed out of the fray in Washington. While Newsweek reached out for comment, DeSantis has not issued a public statement on the leadership battle and has largely remained focused on issues in state as he prepares for a potential presidential bid in 2024. Still, the comparisons were there, whether he liked it or not.
The distinction, said Florida Atlantic University political marketing expert Craig Agranoff, is that DeSantis is simply more convincing than McCarthy, whom opponents say is too friendly to big tech, too willing to compromise, and embodies the culture of the “swamp” many said the party has sworn to oppose.
Though DeSantis has faced his own share of resistance in the party—his Senate declined to pursue a number of his biggest priorities in the 2022 state budget—other initiatives, including his veto of legislators’ proposed district lines in the 2021 redistricting process, met little resistance, while the party has generally remained squarely behind him.
“It is not uncommon for there to be divisions within a political party, and it is possible for there to be multiple candidates for the position of speaker who are all members of the same party,” Agranoff told Newsweek. “In such cases, it can be difficult for the party to unite behind a single candidate, as different factions within the party may support different candidates. This can lead to a situation where it is difficult for the party to organize and present a united front in the vote for speaker.”
The difference with DeSantis, he said, is his universal recognition as a strong leader who is well-regarded by his party without a number of splintered factions voting in different directions.
“In Florida, there hasn’t been a really strong contender to go up against a Republican and voters in Florida seem happy with the way the economy is going,” Agranoff said. “Some people vote based on their wallets or other personal reasons and find that the political climate in Florida is headed in the right trajectory. When voters feel that the ruling political party in their state is representing their views and interests, it is unlikely they will seek change.”