House GOP Speaker nominee Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) expressed optimism about winning the gavel Tuesday night as he emerged from meetings with allied members following three failed ballots, floating the possibility of winning the post with fewer than 218 votes. 

“You’re sitting at 202 votes, so you need technically just 11 more votes to win,” McCarthy said.

“Democrats have 212 votes. You get 213 votes, and the others don’t say another name, that’s how you can win. You can win with 218. You could win with 222. But if you want to look at how you have to go about doing it,” McCarthy said.

A House Speaker is elected by a majority of all those voting for a specific Speaker candidate, not necessarily all members. Those voting “present” and those who are absent do not count toward that total, lowering the threshold.

Former House Speakers Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio) each won the Speakership with just 216 votes in 2021 and 2015, respectively.

In the three Tuesday votes, all 434 members voted in all ballots, putting the majority threshold at 218. In the first and second ballots, McCarthy got 203 votes, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) got 212, and 19 McCarthy opponents voted for other candidates. In the third vote, a 20th member joined the detractors, putting McCarthy at 202.

It is not clear, however, how McCarthy could not only win over 11 in the group to vote for him, but get the other nine to not vote for a candidate.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) dismissed the strategy of McCarthy getting across the line with “present” votes outside a separate meeting in the Capitol with McCarthy allies and detractors in the office of House GOP Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).

“If he’s literally trying to patchwork votes together, to scrape together the votes by trying to carve out ‘present’ votes in hopes that people don’t show up or something, I just don’t see that as the right path to a strong leadership position,” Roy said.

Roy also cast strong doubts on the notion that any of the 20 Republicans who opposed McCarthy would play ball and vote “present” on Wednesday.  

“I definitely don’t see it,” he said. 

McCarthy is also not ruling out trying to get to the 218 votes.

“If we want to get to 218, we have to keep talking,” McCarthy said.

He said that most of the rules change and priority issues with the mostly hard-right House Freedom Caucus group have been settled, and that the issue of compromising on the “motion to vacate” – a move to force a vote on ousting the Speaker – was “done with.” McCarthy agreed to lower the threshold to just five members to bring up the move, down from a majority of the conference.

McCarthy is remaining defiant in the face of the opposition, saying multiple times that there is not a scenario in which he pulls out of the race for Speaker.

“It’s a little growth period that we have, but at the end of the day, all of this that we go through will make us stronger,” McCarthy said.

Mike Lillis contributed.