Inside Kevin McCarthy’s vengeance operation against the Republicans who fired him

Kevin McCarthy is not done trying to exact revenge on the fellow Republicans who ended his Hill career.

After a devastating ejection from the speakership that he spent 16 years pursuing, the California Republican and his allies are mobilizing to oust the eight GOP lawmakers who joined Democrats to depose him.

A top McCarthy ally, Brian O. Walsh, is overseeing an attempt to recruit primary challengers to take on members of the infamous “Gaetz Eight” — the Capitol’s nickname for Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and seven Republicans who supported his fire-McCarthy push — according to six people familiar with the plans who were granted anonymity to discuss them.

The McCarthy revenge campaign is ready to marshal the former speaker’s considerable donor network on behalf of Republican primary candidates who are deemed strong enough to pose a credible threat to one of the eight.

“These traitors chose to side with Nancy Pelosi, AOC and over 200 Democrats to undermine the institution, their fellow Republicans and a duly elected Speaker,” Walsh said in a statement. “There must be consequences for that decision.”

Behind the scenes, McCarthy allies have identified three of the Gaetz Eight as the most vulnerable in primaries and thus, the ripest targets: Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Bob Good (R-Va.) and Eli Crane (R-Ariz.). Mace and Good already have strong challengers, but Crane still lacks a compelling prospective candidate to take him on.

That quiet work shows McCarthy’s appetite for payback remains intense, even months after his October ouster as speaker and December departure from Congress. It also illustrates that even out of office, the former speaker and his supporters can make life miserable for his detractors — a further sign that the House GOP power struggle between burn-it-down hardliners and more establishment conservatives is alive and well.

Walsh is acting with McCarthy’s blessing. While the former speaker is not involved in the day-to-day work of the project, he is briefed on its progress, as are key donors, according to a person familiar with the effort who was granted anonymity to discuss it. 

McCarthy’s closest allies say his eight defectors should fear his influence from afar. He made clear even before retiring from Congress how angry he was, arguing that Gaetz belongs in jail and getting intoan alleged physical altercation with another of the eight, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.).

“One of the most dangerous things that you could do is have an untethered McCarthy,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a former top lieutenant of the ex-speaker. “In terms of some of the people that have done stupid things over the past several months.”

The McCarthy camp’s effort might not fully pan out this cycle, however. One member of the Gaetz Eight, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said that a potential primary foe who was uninterested in a challenge recently reached out — to reveal details of repeated recruitment attempts by a McCarthy associate.

Things look perhaps most promising in South Carolina, where Mace’s home base in the lowcountry is Ground Zero for McCarthy’s revenge tour. The betrayal from Mace, one of the most unexpected votes to oust him, may rankle McCarthy’s inner circle the most.

Walsh traveled to Charleston late last year to start interviewing more than a dozen candidates interested in taking on Mace. One of the strongest, Catherine Templeton, will launch a bid next week. McCarthy’s allies have signaled interest in devoting significant firepower to her.

Templeton ran unsuccessfully for South Carolina governor in 2018, and previously served in the Cabinet of then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

“McCarthy is trying to get somebody,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said. “I know he’s been contacting people.” He described Templeton as “whip smart” and a “strong candidate.”

While McCarthy has openly said that he plans to play in primaries, some GOP candidates may have second thoughts about his involvement after his public downfall. Mace has already claimed that McCarthy recruited her challenger to be “his personal puppet.”

Norman said he warned Templeton that perceived closeness to McCarthy could work against her, to which she replied: “I’ve never met him.”

Templeton adviser Brandon Moody said she was not recruited by McCarthy but that she did take a meeting with Walsh, as she considered entering the race.

Yet Walsh is considered an extension of McCarthy. A political consultant and former president of the McCarthy-aligned American Action Network group, he remains close to the Californian.

Walsh’s work sprang up after McCarthy’s sudden ouster. Donors, consultants and potential candidates began to get in touch with McCarthy world about mounting primary bids against the eight Republicans, and Walsh volunteered to serve as a clearinghouse.

Further north in Virginia, McCarthy has also signaled interest in striking back against Good, the House Freedom Caucus chair who already has a primary opponent in state Sen. John McGuire. Even before McGuire officially declared, McCarthy waseyeing the race.

And Good tangled verbally with McCarthy on the House floor in November, after POLITICO reported McGuire’s plans for a primary campaign, according to a lawmaker who overheard the private exchange and was granted anonymity to discuss it. Good sarcastically urged McCarthy to campaign in his district, to which McCarthy replied that he helped get Good elected and would spend money again in his district, this time for his challenger, the lawmaker said.

An adviser to McGuire said that McCarthy and his allies were not involved in the decision to challenge Good. But the incumbent still plans to tie McGuire to the former speaker. (It’s a tricky charge, since Good himself accepted help from McCarthy and allied super PACs to win reelection; the Virginian says McCarthy never bought his support.)

“It would be great if my opponent brought Kevin McCarthy to the district to campaign for him. I would actually suggest that he do that,” Good said in an interview.

Outside of South Carolina and Virginia, recruitment has been slower — despite McCarthy’s packed coffers and access to crucial donors from his time in leadership.

Crane’s membership in the “Gaetz Eight” is particularly galling to McCarthy allies. Elected in 2022 with massive financial help from a McCarthy-backed PAC, he was the only first-term participant in the ouster push.

Crane told POLITICO that he’s aware of efforts to interview primary opponents to take him down. Asked why he suspects McCarthy is behind it, Crane replied with a laugh: “Common sense.”

Indeed, McCarthy allies have made inquiries about challengers to both Crane and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), according to a person familiar with the conversations who was granted anonymity to address them. The pool of candidates willing to take on an incumbent is thin but recruitment efforts are ongoing. The filing deadline for the state is April 8.

One top prospect, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, said he is not interested in dropping down from the Senate race to challenge Crane.

Biggs and Gaetz, who’s the biggest target of all, are seen as harder to topple. A former chair of the House Freedom Caucus, Biggs been on the ballot in his area for decades.

Another Republican in the defector group, Rep. Matt Rosendale (Mont.), has already told allies he plans to run for Senate, though he hasn’t officially announced yet. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) is already retiring, taking him off any political hit list.

Some McCarthy backers see a window of opportunity in Rep. Tim Burchett‘s (R-Tenn.) district. Burchett said he’s noticed recruitment chatter in his district and attempts to pick off his donors.

Former state Rep. Jimmy Matlock, who lost to Burchett when the seat was open in 2018, said in an interview that he’s seriously considering a run. Matlock has also connected with a McCarthy ally.

“I’m not trying to run for Kevin McCarthy,” Matlock said. “I’m trying to represent people who think now there’s really a need for a change.”

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