Why did House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., abruptly decide to pull out of the race for House speaker – a race he was sure to win?
Speculation swirled throughout the House Friday, just a day after McCarthy’s stunning announcement, that the speaker-in-waiting was felled by a persistent Internet report linking him romantically to Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C.
The rumor of an affair – categorically denied by McCarthy and Ellmers, who are both married to others – was fueled this week by an email campaign of a GOP donor and a letter released by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., to the leader of the House Republican Conference urging any leadership candidate guilty of “misdeeds” to step down.
The reports were all beneath the surface, however, until Ellmers spoke briefly Friday morning at a closed GOP Conference meeting called to discuss the election of a speaker.
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In a statement provided by her office that mirrored what several members told McClatchy she had told her Republican colleagues, Ellmers said: “As someone who has been targeted by completely false accusations and innuendo, I have been moved by the outpouring of support and prayers from my colleagues, constituents and friends. Now I will be praying for those who find it acceptable to bear false witness.”
House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, told McClatchy, “I think she spoke about the things that people are saying because it’s become an issue.”
As Ellmers left the conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol, she was swarmed by reporters and TV cameras but didn’t speak. Asked by McClatchy if she planned to resign or to announce her retirement from Congress, she smiled and shook her head “no.”
The meeting had been called by outgoing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to give Republicans a chance to regroup after McCarthy had upended what was expected to be a routine GOP election for speaker nominee. (Although the majority party effectively controls who will be speaker, the election is by the entire House.)
Boehner had triggered the need for an election with his own surprise announcement that he would retire from Congress at the end of October.
Jones downplayed his role in the fevered speculation in an interview with McClatchy Friday.
“I never thought words on a piece of paper would have such an impact,” he said.
Jones, who’s served 11 terms in the House, sent his letter to House GOP Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Tuesday. He then posted it on his website and issued a press release about it.
“I care about the image of the House,” he told McClatchy. “I had a father who served here 26 years. We all ought to be above reproach.”
Asked if he knew about any impropriety involving Ellmers and McCarthy, Jones first said, “I don’t deal in rumors and innuendo.” Then, he added, “About a year ago I had heard there was some type of friendship.”
Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, said that several lawmakers in the Texas delegation had questions about the alleged relationship when they met with McCarthy on Tuesday about his candidacy for speaker.
“It was on the minds of several people,” Marchant said. “It was something that came up.”
One Texan whom Marchant declined to indentify confronted McCarthy about the rumor of an affair with Ellmers. “He categorically denied it,” Marchant said, though McCarthy did discuss why there might be a “perception” of a close relationship. Marchant did not detail McCarthy’s explanation.
A story alleging McCarthy and Ellmers were having an affair was first published Jan. 23 on a website called GotNews.com, which began about a year-and-a-half ago. The website’s proprietor, California resident Charles C. Johnson, described himself in an interview as a “journalist and new media entrepreneur in the spirit of Matt Drudge or Julian Assange.”
Johnson said he decided to “drill down” on the people who take congressional leadership positions and that he took an interest in McCarthy because of the Bakersfield native’s rapid rise through the House ranks.
“I don’t harbor any malice toward him,” Johnson insisted, adding that “I like to look for things are anti-establishment.”
Johnson’s prior articles have attracted considerable notoriety, including his offer in 2014 to pay for photos of the wife of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was confined to a nursing home. Cochran was in a bitterly contested run-off at the time, and the photo scandal resulted in the arrest and subsequent suicide of a tea party official and the conviction of a blogger in June to two years in jail for his role in the conspiracy to take the photos.
He also revealed the name of a University of Virginia student whose highly publicized rape claims to Rolling Stone fell apart under scrutiny.
Johnson’s original story about McCarthy and Ellmers was circulated widely by e-mail targeting political journalists and others. After Boehner announced he would be stepping down, setting up McCarthy as the candidate to replace him, Johnson republished the story on Sept. 25. The allegations were subsequently mass e-mailed by a Republican donor, Steve Baer, to House members on their private e-mail accounts, according to a report in the Huffington Post.
“Somebody stole our e-mail addresses and is spamming us with this weird blogosphere nonsense,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.
On Wednesday, Raleigh, N.C., attorney Thomas A. Farr, on behalf of Ellmers’ campaign committee, sent Johnson a letter declaring the GotNews.com stories contained “defamatory and false statements” that are causing “great injury” to Ellmers and her family. Farr demanded the Johnson remove the stories from his website.
“I’m not concerned about it,” Johnson said. “If I am sued, I am confident I have enough information (to prevail.)”