McCarthy joins stream of lawmakers planning to leave Congress
The upcoming vacancies will affect votes and the 2024 election
Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced on Wednesday morning that he would step down from his seat in Congress at the end of the year. The 58-year-old, nine-term Republican will not serve out the remainder of his time, which would have extended into January 2025.
He pledged to keep working toward Republican wins in Congress.
“I helped lead Republicans to a House majority—twice,” McCarthy wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “I will continue to recruit our country’s best and brightest to run for elected office. The Republican Party is expanding every day, and I am committed to lending my experience to support the next generation of leaders.”
McCarthy’s departure is the latest in a wave of planned exits from Congress. It will temporarily shrink a vanishingly slim Republican majority in the chamber. His decision to walk away from newly appointed Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., also represents a significant change of the guard in GOP leadership.
Republicans chose Johnson as speaker after frustrated conservatives in the House orchestrated McCarthy’s removal in October. Come January, Johnson must contend with a two-vote Republican majority. Passing any legislation will require nearly absolute unity among the GOP—a daunting proposition with many of Congress’ most important legislative tasks such as approving a budget still ahead.
“We need the numbers, but I wish him well,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. “It puts us in a bind, obviously. You have someone absent, sick, what have you—something at home. That puts us in a tough spot.”
McCarthy is the highest-profile Republican stepping down. But he’s not the only leadership member walking away.
Just a day before McCarthy’s announcement, a close ally of the former speaker, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., also announced he would not pursue reelection, though he pledged to serve out the rest of his term. McHenry has been a key Republican negotiator and helped prevent a government shutdown in 2023 by bridging the party’s moderates and conservatives.
McHenry reassured his colleagues in his farewell announcement.
“There has been a great deal of hand-wringing and ink spilled about the future of this institution because some like me have decided to leave,” McHenry wrote. “Those concerns are exaggerated. I truly feel like this institution is on the verge of the next great run.”
McCarthy and McHenry’s announcements now make 35 House representatives who aren’t pursuing reelection. One more former member, George Santos of New York, has been expelled and cannot serve in Congress again. Six senators have also announced plans to retire.
The number of vacancies adds uncertainty to the 2024 election season. Incumbents usually go into a race with a significant advantage. With 8 percent and 6 percent of the House and Senate leaving, respectively, do these vacancies open up a weakness for their parties?
Derek Willis, a professor at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, doesn’t think so.
“Retirements definitely can put some pressure on the party committees, and it also may lead them to seek out candidates to run in open seats that can self-fund,” Willis said. “Many of these retirements are in safe districts, so that’s less of a strain. But any small chance to lose or gain a seat will demand attention.”
Sixteen Republicans so far have announced their departure, compared to 25 Democrats.
Willis noted that the perhaps more significant loss would be the fundraising networks available to long-standing members who developed support over many years in Congress. That’s especially true of McCarthy, whose fundraising skills were invaluable to House leadership in 2016 and 2020.
Rep. Marcus Mollinaro, a freshman representative from New York, recalls McCarthy using those skills to put Republicans in office in New York.
“Listen, no member of Congress worked harder to help us win the majority, and certainly very few gave so much to the New York delegation to score those very important wins for the people of New York and America,” Molinaro said.
Republicans will have a chance to win McCarthy’s seat back, but not until California Gov. Gavin Newsom calls a special election. California law requires the governor to announce the race within two weeks of the seat’s vacancy.