Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a leading candidate to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House, may have severely damaged his candidacy when he said yesterday that the Benghazi committee had severely damaged Hillary Clinton:
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said on Fox News. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought.”
This was a pure gaffe — an inadvertent blurting out of the truth. But some Republicans are saying it calls into question McCarthy’s ability to act as spokesman for the party.
Speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said McCarthy should apologize, saying the California Republican made an “absolutely inappropriate statement.”
Speaker John Boehner, who is set to retire at the end of the month, sought to provide cover for McCarthy on Thursday. In a statement, he denied that the committee has anything to do with politics.
“This investigation has never been about former Secretary of State Clinton and never will be,” Boehner said.
RELATED: Boehner defends Benghazi panel
Privately, Republicans were outraged by the remarks, saying the House majority leader had given Democrats unfounded ammunition to argue that the committee’s investigation is squarely being driven by politics. Republicans on the committee had tried for months to keep the focus of the inquiry on the administration’s handling of the attacks, avoiding getting into the ins and outs of the various aspects on the email stories.
But in one fell swoop, McCarthy undercut their strategy.
RELATED: Democrats seize on McCarthy’s Benghazi comments
“I might have said it differently,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, told CNN. “Any ancillary political activity that comes out of it is, in fact, not the goal of the committee and is not what the committee is seeking to do.”
Added Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, “I totally disagree with those comments.” Asked if they could jeopardize his bid for speaker, the conservative Amash said: “I think it should be a concern.”
McCarthy’s comments come at a pivotal moment for the 50-year-old Republican. He is now the leading candidate to replace Boehner during next week’s leadership elections, giving him a major platform to drive the national conversation and shape the agenda for the GOP. And McCarthy’s Benghazi comments could reinforce the impression among some of his critics that his gaffe-prone nature could hurt the party headed into 2016.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a supporter of McCarthy’s who did not see the leader’s remarks, said that the California Republican may need to be cognizant that his comments now are going to be heavily scrutinized.
“Being a majority leader is different than being the speaker,” Stewart said. “There is a bigger microscope.”
McCarthy was the obvious choice to move up the ladder. He still may be if he can limit the damage.
But the Democrats are smelling blood and may demand McCarthy’s scalp as a price for keeping the Benghazi committee up and running. Democrats on the committee could simply walk away and refuse to participate any more. This would pretty much mean the end of the committee and the end of the Benghazi probe.
There is no other candidate who stands out, although it is believed that the two top candidates for majority leader — Reps. Scalise and Price — would probably be interested in the speakership if McCarthy drops out. And then, the scramble begins as some members who may have withdrawn their name from consideration for a leadership position might reconsider if the deck is shuffled.
The election is expected to take place during a GOP conference on October 8.