Kevin McCarthy’s made the right GOP moves. He nevertheless has to fight for t…

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, said the number of seats the GOP picks up next year will matter “big time” for McCarthy’s speakership dream: “Five or eight [pick-ups] is a whole different ball game than 20 to 30.”

McCarthy has worked diligently to conquer the conservative opposition that stymied his 2015 bid for speaker. He’s kept former President Donald Trump close in a House GOP that’s swinging to the right while laboring to prevent a handful of firebrand freshmen from dominating the narrative of this Congress. The conference unanimously elected him minority leader a year ago next week, and he may get an additional raise of goodwill if he brings Republicans back to the majority after a bumpy stretch. already so, McCarthy’s victory in 2023 is not guaranteed.

Interviews with more than 40 Republicans, both inside and outside the conference, point to two worrisome factions for McCarthy in a future vote for speaker: conservatives and wild cards. As assiduously as the affable 56-year-old has fundraised and recruited to turn the House red, he’s expending just as much effort to please both the often-unruly right without alienating the handful of centrists whose sustain he may need.

View from the Freedom Caucus

Six years ago, after McCarthy shocked the GOP by abandoning the speaker’s race, he told POLITICO that friends had asked him to consider his appetite for leading a restive conference that might “eat you and chew you up.” His biggest obstacle then, already before unsubstantiated rumors of an extramarital affair, was the Freedom Caucus.

Today’s scenery is much different. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) and others in the party described McCarthy’s elevation of Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan — a longtime Democratic antagonist anointed to rule Republicans on the oversight and later Judiciary Committees — as “the turning point” in his relationship with the right.

Jordan has repeatedly said he would sustain McCarthy for speaker. But he might need to do more than that.

Some Republicans believe the minority leader is leaning on Jordan to bring in 2023 speaker votes from the Freedom Caucus, which picked a competitor over McCarthy back in 2015. It’s not clear how yoked the group is to Jordan, though: Freedom Caucus members have repeatedly broken from him on votes during this Congress.

And broadly speaking, the right isn’t fully sold on McCarthy to rule a future GOP majority.

When asked about her choice, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said she wants Trump to be speaker. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a longtime McCarthy critic who’s not in the Freedom Caucus but holds similar views, has said he’ll nominate Trump to rule the House should it flip to the GOP. (A spokesperson for the former president has said he’s not interested in a post that, technically, can go to a non-lawmaker.)

In addition, while Rep. Chip Roy did not directly name McCarthy, the Texan recently said he would withhold sustain from any fellow Republican — running for president, speaker or other elected office — who backs a provision in this year’s annual defense policy bill that would make women eligible for the draft.

Roy clarified that stance applied to “anybody, for any position,” when pressed by POLITICO. He may not have to apply that vow to McCarthy if the defense legislation comes back to the House floor with the language stripped.

Where the wild cards are

McCarthy didn’t go as far as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in criticizing Trump after Jan. 6, when the then-president waited hours before urging his supporters to cease their violent assault on the Capitol. On Jan. 13 McCarthy asserted that Trump “produces responsibility” for the attack; the House GOP leader later softened his stance, particularly after Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed his picks for a select committee to probe the insurrection.

More than any other moves he’s made this year, McCarthy’s shifts on the Capitol riot have tested his viability with both ideological poles of his conference. His decision to visit Trump in Florida three weeks after Jan. 6 alienated some GOP members who’d hoped the ex-president’s strength would wane. Since then, a small but potentially pivotal clutch of centrists has privately vented about feeling swept to the side following the deadly siege.

Those tensions came to a head in May, as McCarthy was ejecting Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the conference’s No. 3 leadership identify following her repeated Trump condemnations. McCarthy fumbled bipartisan efforts to establish an independent Jan. 6 commission, telling members he wouldn’t whip against an agreement Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) helped negotiate, then later reversing himself — one day after speaking with Freedom Caucus chief Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.).

Thirty-five House Republicans nevertheless voted for the Katko-negotiated Jan. 6 commission bill. McCarthy insisted his opposition to the independent riot probe was a substantive objection to Democrats’ handling of the bill, in addition those defections also amounted to a rebuke of how the GOP leader handled the matter.

“He blew us up. He didn’t have to do that,” one House GOP centrist said days after the vote, speaking candidly about McCarthy on the condition of anonymity. “He’s raising a lot of money, but Kevin should be worried about his reasonable flank.”

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