Kevin McCarthy was well aware he was going to lose his bid to become Speaker of the House of Representatives on the first ballot, three people with knowledge of the situation told Rolling Stone. What he was not privately predicting was that the beatings would continue for an entire week. “He knew he was going to get fucked — he just didn’t know they were going to fuck him this many times, or this hard,” explained one congressional aide.
Among the major factors in McCarthy losing more than a dozen speakership ballots, people familiar with the matter say, was the severity of Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz’s enmity toward the Republican leader. Gaetz’s intense and personal distaste for McCarthy has been an open secret in Washington political circles for years, so much so that Gaetz and McCarthy’s colleagues would argue it isn’t even a “secret” at all.
But Gaetz’s hatred curdled into something even more powerful after it was revealed in early 2021 that the MAGA congressman was the target of a federal investigation into the sex trafficking of a minor. (No charges were filed against Gaetz, but his “wingman” Joel Greenberg was sentenced to 11 years in prison.) McCarthy, in Gaetz’s opinion, failed to mount a forceful enough defense on his behalf. According to two sources familiar with the matter, Gaetz has been furious at McCarthy for the perceived lack of support ever since — despite the fact that McCarthy did not strip him of any committee assignments during the probe.
The enmity between the two Republicans spilled into open view on the floor of the House during the 14th vote Friday night that McCarthy had bragged would finally put him over the top to secure the speaker’s gavel. Gaetz placed himself at the center of the drama. He skipped his turn in the alphabetical role call vote, setting himself up to vote at the end of the proceeding. With McCarthy needing one more yes vote, Gaetz instead voted “present” — leaving McCarthy with 50 percent of the vote, a hair short of victory. McCarthy strode up to Gaetz on the House floor, and a the foes had a heated exchange that did not change the total. McCarthy again was left hanging. (Gaetz again voted “present” along with the other Never Kevin rebels in the 15th vote that finally gave McCarthy the gavel.)
The original source of Rep. Gaetz’s acute loathing of McCarthy is less clear. Rolling Stone contacted members of Congress, sources on Capitol Hill, and activists in conservative organizations to ask what the root cause was. They all just knew Gaetz hated the House GOP leader. One Republican who knows both Gaetz and McCarthy says they even once asked the latter why Gaetz dislikes him so much. This source recalls McCarthy answering: “I don’t know.”
Gaetz’s animosity toward McCarthy was on full display throughout the week, as he stood to deliver nominating speeches on behalf of both Jim Jordan and Donald Trump. “Maybe the right person for the Speaker of the House isn’t someone who wants it so bad,” Gaetz said when nominating Jordan. “Maybe the right person for Speaker of the House isn’t someone who has sold shares of themself for more than a decade to get it.”
“We have to restore to the Speaker’s Office the actual person who ought to be in the Speaker’s Office, not the squatter who is currently there,” he later added while nominating Trump. “And if the Architect of the Capitol is listening — I sent a letter, and I would like to know what the basis is to allow someone to occupy the Speaker’s office who comes in second place ten straight times? Is there, like, some basis in law or rule or precedent for that?”
Both men nominated by Gaetz were working to whip votes for McCarthy. Jim Jordan nominated McCarthy in a forceful floor speech. Meanwhile, Trump made public call on Truth Social for Republicans to back McCarthy. Both the former president and his eldest son Donald Trump Jr. have also made phone calls in recent days to GOP members of Congress in support of McCarthy, two knowledgeable sources say. The former president’s recent whipping for McCarthy was described by one person with direct knowledge of one of the calls as “lackadaisical.”
Asked to comment on reports that he personally despises McCarthy — and that his loathing was intensified by McCarthy’s failure to aggressively stand up for him during the sex-crimes probe — Gaetz’s office did not deny it. Instead, they pointed Rolling Stone to a TV interview on Thursday in which the congressman said he would not vote for McCarthy “under almost any circumstance,” while insisting his motivation was principled, not personal.
“Kevin McCarthy is the masthead of the lobby core,” Gaetz told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham when asked point-blank if his grudge against McCarthy was personal. “I resent the extent to which Kevin McCarthy utilizes the lobbyists and the special interests to be able to dictate how political decisions are made, how policy decisions are made, and how leadership decisions are made. Kevin McCarthy has been in the leadership for 14 years, and he has sold shares of himself to special interests, to political action committees. And so that’s why I don’t think he is an appropriate choice.”
McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
By midday Friday, it became clear that McCarthy’s opponents with less intense feelings toward him were ready to accept his concessions, give in to the McC-mentum, and allow the House to begin its business. Fourteen of them changed their vote to McCarthy during the 12th ballot, with another, Andy Harris, relenting during the 14th. McCarthy crowed that he would have the votes to win the speakership Friday night. Gaetz seemed to acknowledge the inevitable, as well. “I think the House is in a lot better place with some of the work that’s been done to democratize power out of the speakership,” he said. “And that’s our goal.”