Republican Laurie Buckhout was preparing a run for Congress when, walking through a soybean field with her dog, she learned that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had been ousted.
“It didn’t change what I want to do,” Buckhout said in an interview with NBC News. A week and a half after McCarthy lost his speakership, and while Republicans were struggling to replace him, Buckhout filed to run against Democratic Rep. Don Davis in a North Carolina battleground district.
And she wasn’t the only Republican to launch a House campaign as GOP infighting brought the chamber to a standstill for three weeks while the party cycled through failed candidates before finally electing Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., as the next speaker.
Buckhout is one of three touted House GOP recruits who in recent weeks have launched campaigns for battleground districts President Joe Biden carried in 2020 — districts that Republicans hope to flip in order to preserve their House majority next year.
None of the chaos made the candidates reconsider signing up to join the House Republican conference — not even the news that some lawmakers were receiving death threats as pressure mounted to back Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan for the post.
“I’ll be honest with you, with no hyperbole — I’ve been shot at,” said Buckhout, a retired Army colonel who commanded a battalion in Iraq. “And I have done the right thing before.”
Alison Esposito is another candidate who launched her campaign as the chaos unfolded. A former New York City police officer, Esposito filed to run against Democratic Rep. Pat Ryan in upstate New York six days into the House speaker fight. Two weeks after McCarthy was ousted, Joe Teirab, a Republican former federal prosecutor and Marine veteran, filed to run in the Twin Cities suburbs in Minnesota, where he hopes to take on Democratic Rep. Angie Craig.
“I love this country and I wanted to serve this country,” Teirab said in an interview, explaining why he still wanted to run. “I haven’t for one second second-guessed what I think America is about. And America is about freedom and opportunity.”
Esposito, who made an unsuccessful run for New York lieutenant governor last year, said the chaos “strengthened my resolve to get non-career politicians into elected office.”
The threats facing members of Congress didn’t deter Esposito, either.
“I was a cop,” She said. “I was in the riots of 2020 where someone threw a kitchen cabinet off of a roof and hit me in the head. … The death threats for somebody in the House, it never even crossed my mind to step out of that game.”
How McCarthy’s ouster affects the 2024 House battle
As speaker, McCarthy helped recruit candidates in top battlegrounds. Teirab said he spoke to McCarthy before deciding to run, as well as other party leaders and grassroots supporters. And much of that recruitment work was done before McCarthy lost his gavel.
“If this had happened in May, I think it would be a five-alarm fire,” one Republican strategist involved in House races said of the party’s candidate recruitment.
Republican strategists involved in House races have long noted that McCarthy has been a crucial recruiter and mentor for candidates, as well as a prolific fundraiser. McCarthy announced last week that he raised $15.3 million in the latest fundraising quarter, totaling $78 million so far this election cycle.
Even though he is no longer leading the conference, McCarthy has still been active in the fight for the House.
The former speaker has hosted or appeared at 11 fundraisers for lawmakers and candidates since he was ousted, according to McCarthy spokesman Drew Florio, who wrote in an email to NBC News that McCarthy “remains devoted to recruiting strong candidates and ensuring they have the resources necessary to win next November.”
Florio said McCarthy has been in “daily contact” with the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. McCarthy has also had “several” in-person candidate meetings, and he has been reaching out on the phone to candidates, donors and lawmakers to check in on their campaigns.
It remains to be seen how involved Johnson, the new speaker, will be in the fight for the House majority.
Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main super PAC backing House Republicans, said in a statement Wednesday that McCarthy “laid a tremendous foundation to expand the Republican majority, and Speaker Johnson is well-positioned to pick up the baton and carry it over the finish line.”
The fact that candidates are still looking to run even amid the chaos in the House conference is a welcome sign for Republicans. But those candidates do face the difficult task of trying to stay above the fray of the House GOP’s toxic internal politics of the moment.
All three new candidates declined to say whom they would support for speaker. And they dismissed concerns that they may be tied to a dysfunctional conference, citing voters’ focus on other issues and concerns about the Biden administration and Democratic leadership.
“Washington is broken, and in Washington are Democrats and Republicans,” Teirab said. “I don’t think it’s a left or right issue.”
Esposito said she has faced questions from a few voters about Republicans’ ability to govern, but she has mainly heard those questions from reporters.
“It’s not about Republicans not being able to govern,” she said. “It’s about being able to work together and move us forward and to fight against the Democrat policies now that are undermining the very fabric of America.”
Democrats are still expected to tie these candidates to the hard-right wing of the party.
“MAGA candidates are launching their campaigns in the middle of this speaker chaos because they want to be a part of the mess,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Viet Shelton said in a statement. “It’s sad that a dysfunctional House energizes them to join Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene to sow more chaos for Team Extreme.”