House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

WASHINGTON – “It must have been the Jones letter,” a well-placed Capitol Hill source told WND.

It seemed the only way to explain why House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suddenly and shockingly announced Thursday he would not run for speaker of the House, when his election was considered a near certainty.

The source was referring to a letter written by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., as WND reported, asking any candidates for majority leader to drop out if they had any embarrassing skeletons in the closet.

Red State reported a letter accusing McCarthy of having a relationship with Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., was circulated widely among members of Congress. The pair denied having a relationship.

The stunning move suddenly throws the GOP caucus into disarray and makes the race for the top spot in the House wide open, with no clear frontrunner.

Rep. Renee Ellmers , R-N.C.

Rep. Renee Ellmers , R-N.C.

McCarthy was considered the heavy favorite and heir apparent to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who recently announced he would retire from Congress at the end of October.

Boehner now may stay on the job past October, perhaps even indefinitely, as he reiterated Thursday he would remain until the House elects a new speaker.

That could be bad news for conservatives who fear Boehner will strike deals with Democrats to pass legislation raising the debt limit, as well as another budget resolution in December funding such Obama administration priorities as Planned Parenthood, amnesty and Obamacare.

Shock and silence

“I’m not the one,” McCarthy reportedly announced to the amazement of his GOP colleagues, at a caucus assembled Thursday morning to nominate speaker candidates.

Fox News reported fellow House Republicans reacted with silence and disbelief. Anchor Brett Baier said, “This throws complete turmoil into this election.”

McCarthy’s blockbuster announcement left his supporters bewildered.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said, “I think it’s pretty obvious that all members of the delegation of the conference were shocked.”

Some members even broke out in tears.

Boehner ally Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said, “People are crying. They don’t have any idea how this will unfold at all.”

“It is total confusion — a banana republic,” he added.

What do YOU think? Who should succeed John Boehner as speaker? Sound off in today’s WND poll

According to Politico, an aide to McCarthy shocked Boehner with the news just moments before going public.

At a press conference, McCarthy confirmed he will stay on as majority leader, the number two spot in the GOP House leadership hierarchy, but said, “If we are going to unite and be strong we need a new face to help do that.”

“I feel good about the decision,” he added. “I have the deepest respect and regard for each member of the conference and our team as a whole. It is imperative for us to unite and work together on the challenges facing our country.”

“Over the last week, it has become clear to me that our conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader. I have always put this conference ahead of myself.”

A House divided

McCarthy was opposed by the conservative wing of the House but had the strong support of establishment Republicans.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio

A McCarthy aide told CNN he dropped out of the speaker race because he simply didn’t have the 218 votes needed to win.

But a conservative House source contradicted that, telling WND his election had been considered inevitable.

Additionally, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., told CNN that McCarthy was still campaigning for speaker just a few hours before he made his sudden about-face.

McCarthy had previously come under fire for a gaffe in which he said the House committee investigating the Benghazi scandal had succeeded in hurting the poll numbers of Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

But that did not seem to deter him from seeking the top spot in the House or diminish support from most of his colleagues, even though Republicans roundly criticized McCarthy and he apologized for implying the inquiry was politically motivated.

Despite the allegation of a relationship between McCarthy and Ellmers, she was not supporting him for speaker, which struck political observers as odd because they are both considered establishment Republicans.

Ellmers recently said of McCarthy, “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.”

“I can’t vote for someone who doesn’t ask for my vote,” she added.

Ellmers concluded, “I’m apparently not high on his priority list.”

McCarthy blamed conservatives for his demise.

In an interview with National Review after his announcement, he said the roughly 40 members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus “wanted things I couldn’t deliver.”

“I wouldn’t have enjoyed being speaker this way, he added.

McCarthy also said colleagues were getting calls opposing him, and, “I didn’t want to put them through a tough vote.”

Who’s next?

Boehner canceled the speaker nomination elections among GOP House members scheduled for Thursday. The entire House was to vote for speaker on Oct. 29, but that is now in doubt, as members will be out of session next week, and there will undoubtedly be a media circus surrounding the testimony of Hillary Clinton before the Benghazi committee on Oct. 22.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.

Now that there is no clear front-runner to replace Boehner as speaker of the House, speculation on a viable successor is running rampant.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., was immediately seen as the most likely candidate to garner the 218 votes needed in the full House to win the speaker’s post, but he quickly said he doesn’t have intentions to run.

Despite strong endorsements from Boehner and McCarthy, Ryan released a statement that said, “While I am grateful for the encouragement I have received, I will not be a candidate. I continue to believe I can best serve the country and this conference as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.”

There had been a movement to draft Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., as speaker, but he quashed the notion, saying he needed to focus on his work as chairman of the committee investigating the Benghazi scandal.

Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, also declined to run.

Neither she nor Gowdy has said whether they will change their mind following McCarthy’s announcement.

Reps. Steve Scalise, R-La., and Tom Price, R-Ga., had been planning to run for the position of majority leader that McCarthy was going to vacate but will now keep. Neither has said whether he now intends to run for speaker.

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, are now the only candidates left officially seeking the speaker slot.

Webster is endorsed by the House Freedom Caucus.

“It might enhance Dan Webster’s chances. Dan is a man of principle,” Jones told Fox News after McCarthy’s withdrawal.

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla.

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla.

“We stand by our support of Webster,” said Freedom Caucus member Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., to the Daily Signal. “He would make a fantastic speaker. As a group we endorsed Webster, and we stand by the endorsement.”

“[Webster] has made a powerful case for overhauling the function of the House and making it principle-driven rather than power-driven, and that appeals to a lot of members who have been, I’ll say, disenfranchised from the power-driven House that we’ve experienced,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who nominated Webster.

“Our focus is on making sure that the next speaker will put in place the changes that will help us do what we told the American people we were going to do,” Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told the Daily Signal.

A call for order

That was likely a tacit recognition that House conservatives realize they did not have the votes to elect one of their own.

They have been pushing for a speaker who would return the House to what is called regular order, the open process of moving legislation through the chamber that gives rank-and-file members more say, rather than just a yes or no vote on measures proposed by leadership.

In a Facebook post in reaction to McCarthy’s announcement, Amash asked people to read his op-ed from earlier in the week describing what conservatives sought in a new speaker:

“With Speaker Boehner’s resignation, we have a historic opportunity to change course for the better by electing a speaker committed to upholding the open process that allows the body to reflect the policy preferences of the people.

“Under such leadership, there would be no secret deals or voice votes; legislation would move through the normal committee process; and all of us, regardless of party, would be given adequate time to read each bill and an opportunity to offer and vote on amendments.

“This is how the House was meant to work — not as an oligarchy, but as a deliberative body that respects the diversity of its membership.”

The House Freedom Caucus issued this statement:

“We were surprised by today’s news and respect Kevin’s decision to place the conference ahead of himself. Our prayers are with him and his family. We believe that the House needs the principled leadership of a speaker who will empower the institution, its members, and the American people. We must ensure that the processes in the House and in the Republican Conference are fair for all members. The next speaker needs to yield back power to the membership for the sake of both the institution and the country.”

Others who have been mentioned as possible candidates for speaker include: Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas; Hal Rogers, R-Ky.; Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.; and Greg Walden, R-Ore.

Ivanka for speaker?

The Capitol Hill drama did not escape the attention of presidential contenders.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump

GOP front-running presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted: “Great. Kevin McCarthy’s dropped out of speaker’s race.”

He also retweeted a suggestion that his daughter, Ivanka, take the post.

At a campaign event in Las Vegas, Trump commented on McCarthy’s decision, saying, “They’re giving me a lot of credit for that because I said you really need someone very, very, tough and very smart. You know smart goes with tough. I know tough people that aren’t smart that’s the worst. We need smart, we need tough, we need the whole package.”

“The race for speaker of the House is not about Kevin McCarthy, it’s about burning the corrupt Washington political machine to the ground and rebuilding our country so America can win again,” said GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in a statement.

“We all fought hard to elect conservatives to Congress, but the campaign promises made weren’t kept – because they’re beholden to Wall Street, K-Street and the donor class,” he added. “It’s time to elect a speaker who will lead Congress and do what we conservatives sent them there to accomplish.”

In an apparent attempt at humor, the Democratic National Committee tweeted: “Nancy Pelosi for speaker.”

Additional reporting by Cheryl Chumley.

Related stories:

McCarthy exit exposes GOP leadership’s weak bullpen

Obama administration linked to House scandal writeup?

BIG LIST: Candidates to replace Boehner

Lawmaker letter warns against skeletons in GOP closets

Kevin McCarthy drops out of speaker race

Freedom Caucus rebukes Kevin McCarthy

Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.