The worst job in America is still up for grabs.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy stunned the political world on Thursday by withdrawing his name from the race for Speaker of the House—sending an already chaotic Republican majority into DEFCON One panic.
With no obvious replacement on deck, the move leaves up for grabs the position that is second in line for the presidency.
House lawmakers inside the meeting said McCarthy stood up, introduced his wife to the conference, and then announced in hushed tones that he would not be running, according to lawmakers who briefed the press outside the closed-door meeting.
Members sitting in the back of the room who had trouble hearing his announcement were totally incredulous—even questioning their ears. Some of McCarthy’s allies began to cry.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
When Republicans met late Thursday morning in the House Ways and Means Committee room to choose the successor to Speaker John Boehner, the outcome seemed decided.
While McCarthy had two Republican challengers—Reps. Daniel Webster and Jason Chaffetz, but neither were expected to pose much of a threat to the California Republican.
It wasn’t supposed to be smooth sailing, either.
A few dozen members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus opposed McCarthy, but his backers said he still had the votes to win.
“[McCarthy] would have had a strong majority of Republican support,” said Rep. Charlie Dent. “I don’t believe that he would have 218 votes today… so had this gone to the House floor, it might have been uncertain… I suspect that entered his thinking.”
Then there’s the cryptic letter from North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones that came right before McCarthy’s hasty exit.
Earlier this week, Jones wrote a public plea to the Republican Conference calling for any candidates who had committed any “misdeeds” to withdraw from leadership contests. He cited the marital infidelity of former Rep. Bob Livingston, who was likely to become Speaker but stepped down in 1998, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, as examples. He did not mention McCarthy by name.
Reached by phone Wednesday—before McCarthy withdrew—Jones said he was not referring to any particular person.
“When you assume a position in the national government, in this case as a congressman, then I think there are certain guidelines that you should serve by. And one is that you must do the best you can as a human being to be a man or woman of integrity,” Jones told The Daily Beast.
Now there is just uncertainty inside the Republican ranks.
Speaker John Boehner then said he would postpone the election, then promptly adjourned the meeting. There was no discussion about how to go forward.
“No idea it was coming, no idea,” Rep. Peter King said just outside the House Ways and Means Committee, where the vote was to be held. “Kevin got up to speak, the sound system was poor, and he said, ‘I’m not the one to unify the party.’”
“Stunned silence,” said Texas Rep. Joe Barton when asked to describe the reaction inside the closed door meeting.
Rep. Mark Sanford, a conservative South Carolinian, looked a bit shell-shocked when he walked out carrying a paper plate loaded with barbecue and coleslaw. The meeting finished so quickly that he hadn’t had time to finish his lunch.
“We seem to be in a cycle of surprises right now,” said Mississippi Rep. Gregg Harper, who said he would have voted for McCarthy. “Right now I think everyone’s in a little bit of a state of shock.”
Dozens of members lingered after the meeting was finished—apparently to talk about which lawmakers should put their name forward next—while others couldn’t get out of the melee fast enough.
A stoic Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.) brushed past reporters, ignoring questions.
“We’re running late,” said an aide who paced alongside her.
But Rep. Joe Barton, who lingered for 20 or so minutes after the meeting adjourned, said he expected several candidates to announce their intention to run for Speaker by the end of the business day.
“[McCarthy] had the votes,” Barton said. “I think he did this purely because of the nature of what happened in the last week [with the opposition of] some of the more conservative groups.”
Even members of the conservative Freedom Caucus—which backed Webster over McCarthy—were unsure about what to do next. Despite the downfall of their foe, they seemed grieved—a bit like the dog that finally catches the mail truck.
“There was a lot of shock and dismay,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, who launched an ill-fated speakership bid of his own back in January. “That’s to be expected. We’ll come out of this. This will be a great time for American politics. The status quo has changed.”