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McCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyWatch live: McCarthy holds press briefing Biden vows to work with Congress to 'refine' voting rights bill House passes voting rights and elections reform bill MORE (R-Calif.) is facing pushback after claiming in a recent interview that he is likely to keep his job as the top Republican in the House even if the GOP conference loses seats in November.

Multiple Republican lawmakers, pointing to poll projections that Democrats could gain between five and 15 seats in November, say it’s possible a viable challenger emerges for the top role.

They expressed frustration over an interview McCarthy gave Politico in which he said he would not be at fault should the GOP fall further into the minority. Critics accused him of having misplaced priorities for talking about leadership races when he should be solely focusing on the fight to take back the House.

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“Everybody is in the middle of the race for their lives, and he's worried about gathering votes to be minority leader,” a Republican lawmaker said of whipping leadership votes in the weeks leading up to the election. “I think that's telling.”

Rep. Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoySome Republicans say proxy voting gives advantage to Democrats House passes sweeping protections for LGBTQ people GOP's Chip Roy vows to fight Equality Act in court MORE (R-Texas), who is in a neck-and-neck race against Democrat Wendy Davis for Texas’s 21st Congressional District, suggested the interview was tone-deaf, particularly for those facing competitive races back home.

"All Republicans should be focused on nothing more than making sure we win every race,” Roy said in an interview with The Hill. “When I'm reelected, we're going to wake up on the 4th, and I'm going to be demanding some conversations about where the party's heading, and then we can talk about who and how."

Others argued that McCarthy’s closeness to President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE may be a liability to moderates in swing districts Trump lost in 2016. They say the minority leader hasn’t provided enough cover to break party lines to survive in their districts.

McCarthy, though, argues that he has delivered on his promises.

“If you think we lose seats, it’s based upon my job as minority leader, I don’t think that’s the case,” McCarthy told Politico. “Let's sit back and say, just like anybody running for office, ‘What did you promise you would do?’ and ‘What did you achieve?’”

Some lawmakers feel differently, and they worry McCarthy may be gearing up to cast the blame on other members of leadership, including National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerHouse GOP campaign chief: Not helpful for Trump to meddle in primaries House panel spars over GameStop frenzy, trading apps The Hill's Morning Report - Biden on COVID-19: Next year Americans will be 'better off' MORE (R-Minn.) in the event of a sweeping loss.

“Leadership is earned. It’s not given. And I think it's critical that we at least gain seats in this upcoming election in the House, and if we're not able to regain the majority, we at least need to gain seats,” another senior GOP lawmaker told The Hill. “If leadership does not accomplish that, we need to reconsider that.”

But multiple Republican lawmakers also came to McCarthy’s defense, dismissing the criticism as misguided. They said the California Republican has done a strong job as minority leader, particularly with fundraising and campaigning amid unforeseen difficulty. And even if they lose seats, they argue, the blame shouldn’t fall on McCarthy because voters are responding to Trump and the coronavirus pandemic.  

“The bottom line is he's exceeded expectations when it comes to fundraising. We have more money to spend on incumbents and candidates than we've ever had to spend, even when we're in the majority,” said Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisHouse-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference Biden to meet with bipartisan lawmakers on infrastructure House passes voting rights and elections reform bill MORE (R-Ill.), who is facing a competitive reelection race.

“It is a presidential environment, and he's done the best job he could in the minority, on the political side and the governing side too.”

Sources close to McCarthy noted that he has had widely successful fundraising numbers, racking in $103 million this cycle as well as campaigning across the U.S. for GOP candidates, and will continue those efforts in the days leading up to Nov. 3.

They also noted he has helped lead successful procedural tactics on the House floor, such as the motion to recommit, providing additional fodder for members and candidates looking to attack their opponents’ voting records.

GOP lawmakers said he has been able to unite various factions of the conference from the moderates to the ultraconservatives, which they noted is an impressive feat.

“I think he is widely supported in the conference. He's done a good job bringing the left and the right of the conference together, so I don't foresee him having an issue. ... I think he's done as good a job you can do right now,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.).

One clear example of this is Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHillary Clinton brings up 'Freedom Fries' to mock 'cancel culture' Republicans call for hearing on Biden's handling of border surge Jim Jordan calls for House Judiciary hearing on 'cancel culture' MORE (R-Ohio), a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, who challenged McCarthy for minority leader just two years ago. Now, Jordan, who lost to McCarthy in 2018 in a 159-43 vote, is an ally who is pledging not only that he will not run against McCarthy but also that he will support him next year, whether or not they lose seats in November.

“No, he will not challenge the leader," spokesman Russell Dye said in a statement to The Hill last week. "Mr. Jordan thinks Kevin McCarthy is doing a tremendous job for the Conference.”

Still, the Politico interview seemed to touch a nerve for some because they viewed McCarthy’s comments as a white flag in the midst of the battle. Some GOP lawmakers groaned that his comments indicated a sense of unnecessary pessimism about their odds of picking up seats in the final stretch.

“I will say that that's the thing that ticked me off about the whole thing is that he implied that we are going to lose seats,” another lawmaker said. “I don't believe we are going to lose seats. I believe if we keep working hard we're going to take seats.”

The discussion of leadership races led some GOP lawmakers to point to House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseBiden's COVID, border policies prove he's serious about neither Republican rips GOP lawmakers for voting by proxy from CPAC Merrick Garland is right to prioritize domestic terrorism, but he'll need a bigger boat MORE (R-La.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyRepublicans, please save your party House GOP campaign chief: Not helpful for Trump to meddle in primaries Democrats snipe on policy, GOP brawls over Trump MORE (R-Wyo.) as possible contenders, though the two have not made any public indications that they are vying for such a position.

Scalise previously weighed a bid for Speaker after former Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBoehner book jacket teases slams against Cruz, Trump CPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be Cruz hires Trump campaign press aide as communications director MORE (R-Wis.) announced his retirement. But the Louisiana Republican wasn't notified in advance that Ryan would endorse McCarthy, much to the dismay of his allies, and ultimately did not run for the top role.

In the event of Democrats picking up a sizable number of seats in November, multiple GOP lawmakers view Scalise as the likely successor for the position, though both Scalise and McCarthy have closely tied themselves to Trump.

Others said Cheney, who has broken with the president on a number of key issues, could have the opportunity to make a play for the spot in the event that former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot FireEye finds evidence Chinese hackers exploited Microsoft email app flaw since January Biden officials to travel to border amid influx of young migrants MORE wins in November.

Others said it’s possible both Scalise and Cheney move up, or a dark horse could emerge should the conference decide it needs a new direction at the top following Election Day.

“I believe that the one that is most vulnerable is McCarthy. The second on the list of being vulnerable would be Cheney if they can find a viable candidate to replace her,” one member said, noting tensions between Cheney and the members of the far-right flank of the party in the past.

Nothing will be decided until the results from Election Day are in, but for now, McCarthy may be able to weather any potential storms.

“I think that is one of those things that will be determined after the election,” the member added.

Al Weaver contributed.