It’s very difficult for even the most motivated partisan hack to say anything good about Kevin McCarthy, but give the ex-speaker this: He could raise money like his life depended on it. His now-extinguished political career certainly did. Since 2016 (a not-so-arbitrary cutoff, as we’ll see in a moment), McCarthy has hauled in $77 million from donors for his own campaign committee, nearly all of which was largesse intended to bolster fellow Republicans.
And it worked, at least to an extent. After Republicans lost the House in 2018’s blue-wave midterm election, McCarthy was duly elected as his party’s minority leader, thanks in key part to the relationships he forged—and the favors he banked—as a top GOP money-man. And all that dough, which doesn’t even include the tens of millions that donors have given to the many PACs in McCarthy’s orbit, helped the GOP reclaim the House last year, even if the nine seats they netted fell far short of McCarthy’s own predictions.
Of course, that shortfall is precisely why McCarthy is no longer speaker: While a five-seat majority proved to be plenty for Nancy Pelosi, it was never remotely enough for House Republicans. But now their new speaker, an obscure Louisianan named Mike Johnson, will inherit that same problem, compounded by another one—one that even the hapless McCarthy can smugly claim never tormented him: a lack of proven fundraising ability.
Since he first entered Congress by winning a safely red seat in the northwestern corner of his state back in 2016, Johnson has never had to worry about reelection. Consequently, he’s never felt a need to raise much money: As an incumbent, his collective haul totals just over $4 million. McCarthy has also always represented safe turf, but he understood that the road to the speakership was paved with greenbacks (as did Pelosi). Yet Johnson, a far-right cipher, managed to skip that entire journey—another sign of just how bizarre our present moment is.
But while Republicans are openly relieved that their three-week speakerless nightmare has, for now, come to an end, their decision to elevate a man with no history of bringing in the bucks will make their already difficult task of clinging to the majority even tougher. Of course, simply by virtue of Johnson being speaker, dollars will find their way into his coffers, and he’ll distribute them to members in need.
But the speakership, as we’ve seen, is less powerful than ever, at least in Republican hands. And with Democrats firmly in control of the Senate, the PACs and lobbyists who might otherwise shower Johnson with cash will have little reason to think he can shepherd their priorities through Congress.
Money is not everything in politics—countless well-funded candidates have fallen to less-flush foes. But while it’s not sufficient for assuring victory, it’s certainly necessary. And House Republicans are about to find out what it’s like to head into a difficult election season led by a man with no experience in providing the mother’s milk of politics.