In the hours before House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) abruptly withdrew his candidacy to be the next speaker of the House, he received an email from a conservative activist threatening to expose an alleged affair with a colleague. The subject line: “Kevin, why not resign like Bob Livingston?”
The email, sent just after 8 a.m. on Thursday, came from Steve Baer, a Chicago-based GOP donor known for mass-emailing conservative figures and Republican lawmakers. It was addressed to McCarthy and numerous others, including the personal account of Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), whom conservative media sites have suggested is tied romantically to McCarthy.
McCarthy has brushed off the affair allegation. After announcing that he would not seek the speaker's post on Thursday, he was asked about Wednesday's cryptic letter from Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), which asked that "any candidate for speaker of the House, majority leader, and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public."
"No. No. Come on," said McCarthy. His decision to withdraw, he said, was to ensure that fellow GOP members didn't have a tough vote. "For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face," he said.
But the existence of the Baer email, passed to The Huffington Post by a source, shows that there were personal threats being made prior to McCarthy's abrupt announcement.
In the email, Baer linked to a Washington Examiner story published earlier Thursday with the headline: “Specter of sex scandal injected into GOP leadership race.” The article referenced Jones’ letter in the context of Speaker-elect Bob Livingston abruptly resigning in 1998 following a sex scandal.
Baer urged McCarthy to spare his family and congressional colleagues the ordeal of the allegations being raised, and suggested that concealing an affair would be a national security risk because of the possibility of extortion.
Few news organizations have touched the affair allegations, beyond the Drudge Report and conservative media. Charles Johnson, the conservative provocateur behind GotNews.com, reported them back in January. (Johnson, who is currently banned from Twitter, took a victory lap Thursday on Facebook.)
The rumors gained more traction in the last week in conservative circles, perhaps partly due to Baer’s multiple emails over that time, sent to a string of high-powered Republicans.
RedState editor-in-chief and radio host Erick Erickson wrote Thursday that someone sent links to blog posts about the alleged affair a few days ago to 91 people, including members of Congress and “highly influential conservatives outside Congress.” Erickson added that “there’s no evidence of the rumor being true.”
Erickson didn’t name the email sender, but The Huffington Post has confirmed it was Baer.
Even some natural leadership allies such as Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) expressed doubts about promoting McCarthy to Speaker, a job second in line to the presidency.
“He has not spoken to me personally for my vote, and Jason Chaffetz has, so that’s where I am right now. At this point I will be casting a vote for Jason Chaffetz,” said Ellmers, who is facing a GOP primary challenger. “I can’t vote for someone who doesn’t ask for my vote.
“I’m apparently not high on his priority list,” she added.
Major media outlets often are reluctant to amplify such claims and famously ignored rumors of John Edwards’ infidelity during the 2008 election. While cable news was all over McCarthy's decision to withdraw from the speaker's race on Thursday afternoon, no hosts or guests on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News explicitly referenced the rumors.
Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin seemed to allude to them during an MSNBC appearance, noting “there’s a lot of speculation” that McCarthy’s decision had “more to do with things outside of his professional life.”
A couple hours later, Halperin cryptically tweeted:
Conservative columnist Matt Lewis, one of the few prominent political writers to directly address the rumors Thursday afternoon, explained his reasoning to The Huffington Post.
"I think that the new media errs sometimes in being overzealous and imprudent and the old media errs in being stodgy and not fulfilling its responsibly to viewers and readers,” Lewis said. “It was stunning what happened today and people are looking for answers to something that seems unexplainable. And the truth is that insiders and media elites all over DC are talking about these rumors -- and some fairly prominent people are blogging about it. So I do think there’s a responsibility to be prudent in the way we present the story, but that needs to be balanced with the responsibility we have to our readers."
Baer did not return a request for comment from The Huffington Post. He is a mysterious figure, even in conservative circles. A 2013 National Review story described him as the “most successful email harasser” and noted he blasts out emails to influential conservatives like Erickson, Charles and David Koch, Grover Norquist, and Republican members of Congress.
UPDATE: 11:06 p.m. -- The Hill reported Thursday night that Baer "has been flooding lawmakers' personal email in-boxes with blogs and articles about the McCarthy rumors":
At least eight GOP lawmakers told The Hill they had personally received the Baer emails. One lawmaker said his wife got one of the emails, then asked him about it. A female Western state lawmaker said she began investigating Baer and the issue on Google.
One Midwest Republican lawmaker backing McCarthy took it a step further. After receiving several emails each day about the allegations, the lawmaker brought up the issue directly with close McCarthy allies.
“I didn’t blow it off,” the Midwest lawmaker told The Hill on Thursday. “I asked some direct questions of key people who should know Kevin very well. They said no. One of his closest friends and confidants told me, he knows Kevin and there has never been any indication or evidence or any suggested activities that would have indicated that was true.”
UPDATE: 10/9 -- Ellmers thanked her GOP colleagues for their "prayers and support" during a meeting on Friday. She declined to answer questions as she left the meeting, but a spokeswoman who accompanied her said that she was only responding to serious questions, implying that talk of an affair was not.
Later Friday, CQ Roll Call reported that Jones said he wrote his letter in part because of the affair rumors. "That was part of it. … It was a combination of different things that have happened over the years and this was one of them," Jones told the outlet.
Sam Stein, Ryan Grim and Michael McAuliff contributed reporting.
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