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Deposed former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was still lugging a cardboard box of his personal items out of his old office Tuesday evening when the jockeying to replace him got underway.
McCarthy’s earnest—if under-valued—deputy, Rep. Steve Scalise, was looking for a promotion and wasted no time in starting to court and count votes. So, too, was Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, a hard-right lawmaker with sharp elbows and little patience for those seeking compromise. Others not-so-subtly looking for their own bump up the leadership ladder include Reps. Tom Emmer, Kevin Hern, Chip Roy, and maybe even McCarthy’s handpicked interim Speaker, Patrick McHenry.
For those not familiar with those insiders, one overwhelming commonality stretches across that cohort: they are all white men.
That alone shouldn’t be surprising. While the nation is about 59% white, the current Congress is 74% white. The difference comes almost entirely from the Republicans. Among the 224 voting GOP lawmakers and non-voting delegates in the House, 199, or 89%, are white, according to a LegiStorm analysis. (House Democrats are almost evenly split, with 109 of 215 members identifying as white.)
It’s a similar story for gender equality in Congress. Despite attempts in recent years by Republicans to draw more women to the leadership table, 84% of Republican lawmakers are men. (Among Democrats, that figure falls to 56%.)
It may not be surprising, but it is frustrating. The reasons for the racial imbalance and inequity are as deep-seeded as they are tricky to change. Much of this country remains deeply sexist and racist, and running for office is historically the province of wealthy individuals. Republicans have tried to increase their foothold in communities of color and with women for the last 20 years, but only in fits and starts. After receiving some well-considered recommendations for increasing their appeal beyond white men after their loss in the 2012 presidential race, Republicans tossed those ideas in a wood chipper and nominated Donald Trump.
It’s still way too early to handicap the race for Speaker. It’s good odds that the full roster is far from set, and any hiccups along the way may deputize new candidates or ditch others. But the first blush at the field reveals a big problem for the Republican Party and its stereotyped image as white dudes running the world between tennis matches at the country club. It’s a striking contrast from the chamber’s Democratic leadership, where the top four spots are held by three men of color and a woman.
Other names have been bandied about for the Speaker’s gavel, though maybe not with as much enthusiasm, such as Rep. Elise Stefanik, a member of the leadership team and ardent Trump defender, or Rep. Byron Donalds, who in January tried for the top job on six of the 15 ballots it took for McCarthy to finally become Speaker. Rep. Tom Cole, a level-headed pro in his 11th term, has proven himself a talented in-fighter during his time running the leadership-driven Rules Committee and could well emerge as a grown-up choice. (Donalds would make history as the first Black Speaker and Cole as the first Native American.)
But even if some in the party are worried about the homogeneity of much of its leadership, it's not hurting them where it counts. The GOP donor base—the real controller of any Speaker’s schedule—is accustomed to having white men show up to shake their wallets loose, and that is continuing to work for now. But the party can ignore the realities of a changing nation for only so long.
But Republicans may be on safe ground for now; in the 2022 midterms, 73% of the electorate was white, and those voters broke safely to the GOP by roughly a 60-40 ratio, according to exit polls. Still, the country’s slide away from white majorities is coming, but until Republicans have to deal with that reality at the ballot box, there’s no real incentive to do more than pander to voters of color. For the time being, they can find comfort that the most reliable and largest racial bloc is with them by a 20-point margin.
The more immediate risk to Republicans is the rising clout of women, who have powered Democratic wins for the last 20 years. They made up 53% of the electorate in 2022 and sided with the Democrats, 53-45. Their importance will keep growing and flexing. And yet Republicans, at least at this moment, seem content to have a bunch of dudes vying for one of the most visible jobs in politics for the balance of Biden’s first term in the Oval.
So, maybe a woman or person of color won’t be wielding the House gavel at this point next week. But Republicans sure would be wise to realize they can’t expect to run the nation forever with just white men in power. The country surely won’t accept that forever.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com