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‘I Might Wind Up in the Broom Closet’: Why Eli Crane Defied Kevin McCarthy

WASHINGTON — Representative Eli Crane, Republican of Arizona, was still weeks away from being sworn in to Congress for the first time when Donald J. Trump, the former president, called to try to persuade him to support Kevin McCarthy for speaker.

Mr. Trump had endorsed Mr. Crane during his campaign, helping him emerge victorious in a crowded Republican primary. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with Mr. McCarthy, had donated to his campaign. The pressure to fall in line, Mr. Crane said, was immense.

“That’s always a tough situation, when you have a lot of respect and admiration for somebody, and the commitments that you’ve made to your voters,” Mr. Crane recalled in an interview in his new office this week, just days after he voted against Mr. McCarthy 14 times in a row.

Mr. Crane, 43, a former member of the Navy SEALs and a contender on “Shark Tank,” last week was the sole newly elected congressman to vote against Mr. McCarthy until the bitter, drawn-out end — typically a perilous position for a freshman who harbors any ambition to serve on a powerful committee or play a role in legislating.

But Mr. Crane said his constituents viewed Mr. McCarthy as part of the establishment they had sent him to Washington to upend — and he was not about to disappoint them as his first official act on Capitol Hill.

On the December call with Mr. Trump, Mr. Crane said he had told the former president, “Sir, I’m sorry, we love you out in Arizona, but I’ve been listening to my voters.”

Over five days in which Mr. McCarthy suffered defeat after humiliating defeat, Mr. Crane said he had heard a lot of “What’s it going to take” from the speaker’s allies as they tried to pull together the necessary votes to win the race. He did not want a particular committee. There was no change in the rules that he was after. He said he was not seeking notoriety. He was simply there to vote against Mr. McCarthy.

“I did not want to come up here and be a representative who heard what my voters said and came up here and caved to the pressure,” Mr. Crane said. “I didn’t want anything, other than to do what I was sent here to do.”

Before entering politics, Mr. Crane served five wartime deployments and 13 years in the military.Credit…Samuel Corum/Sipa, via Associated Press

His rigid anti-McCarthy stance caught many Republicans by surprise. Mr. Crane had never made voting against Mr. McCarthy a campaign promise, as some far-right candidates in other districts had done. He was not even the most far-right candidate in his primary.

In fact, Mr. Crane had been quiet about his position on the speaker’s race until he signed on to a Dec. 8 letter demanding concessions from the incoming speaker. Some McCarthy allies assumed he was under the sway of a fellow lawmaker from Arizona, Representative Andy Biggs, who was mounting a protest bid for speaker against Mr. McCarthy.

A Divided Congress

After a dayslong spectacle over the House speakership, the 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.

  • Abortion: As part of an anti-abortion rights effort, House Republicans pushed through a bill that could subject doctors who perform abortions to criminal penalties.
  • I.R.S. Funds: Republicans in the House voted to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service, as conservative lawmakers try to kneecap President Biden’s $80 billion overhaul of the agency.
  • A Wide-Ranging Inquiry: The House approved the creation of a powerful new committee to scrutinize what Republicans say is the “weaponization” of government against conservatives.

But Mr. Crane said his unshakable opposition was more reflective of his military background, which taught him to tough things out.

“I’ve been through a ton of very difficult situations, and I’m very grateful for those,” he said.

Still, it was a stunning way to enter Congress, where Mr. Crane was still getting lost in the hallways while also being one of a handful of holdouts who stood between Mr. McCarthy and the speakership.

“Half the time, I’m trying to find where the bathroom is and where the gym is,” he said of his first days in Washington. “We finally found the gym.”

It’s all a new world for Mr. Crane, who flipped his seat in November, defeating the Democratic incumbent, Tom O’Halleran, in a mostly rural district in northeastern Arizona whose lines had been redrawn to include more Republicans.

During his campaign, Mr. Crane said he supported decertifying the 2020 election, a stance that did not appear to hurt him in the newly conservative district. He was by no means the furthest to the right in his primary; another candidate was Ron Watkins, a prominent conspiracy theorist suspected of being behind the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Before entering politics, Mr. Crane served five wartime deployments and 13 years in the military. He then started Bottle Breacher, a company featured on the reality show “Shark Tank,” whose signature product was a .50-caliber bullet fashioned into a bottle opener and marketed as a gift for men and groomsmen. He became a brand ambassador for Sig Sauer, the firearms manufacturer.

With tattooed arms and dark, slick-backed hair, Mr. Crane stands out in the sea of suits that is the Republican Conference, where he is now bent on disrupting the status quo simply for disruption’s sake.

“He’s a new breed of MAGA,” said Stephen K. Bannon, the former adviser to Mr. Trump, who is close with Mr. Crane. “Smart, tough, lethal.”

Late last Friday night after the 14th vote, the remaining holdouts were Mr. Biggs, Representatives Bob Good of Virginia and Matt Rosendale of Montana, and Mr. Crane. Representatives Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida, two of the most vocal opponents in the final days, had finally relented and switched their votes to “present” on the second-to-last ballot.

“Everybody was pressuring,” Mr. Crane said. As the group of defectors shrank from 20 to four, he said, “the pressure just kept escalating.”

Mr. Crane was something of a wild card because he had said little, at all, throughout the process. And he was the sole freshman in the group.

“The consensus between the group was: ‘We came this far together. If we go out, we’re going out together,’” he said. “When the suggestion was made to put this thing to bed when we knew we could not win, I wanted to make sure I did not leave those that had stood to the end.”

At one point, he said, after the 13th failed vote, things became personal and heated. Mr. McCarthy, unable to spare a single supporter, had called a pair of Republican lawmakers back to Washington for the late-night vote, and a lawmaker approached Mr. Crane on the House floor to berate him for his intransigence.

“No matter how this shakes out, make sure you go apologize to Wesley Hunt and all the other guys you’re screwing over this weekend who can’t be there for their families,” Mr. Crane said a colleague had told him.

Mr. Hunt had left Washington to be with his wife, who had gone into labor earlier in the week and delivered their son prematurely, and returned to the hospital with postpartum complications.

“I was very upset with him for saying that to me,” Mr. Crane said of the colleague, whom he did not know at the time and would not name. “I let him know that.”

Mr. Crane said he has expressed interest in serving on the Natural Resources, Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs Committees, but is fully prepared to be punished for his vote.

“I expect it,” Mr. Crane said, even though Mr. McCarthy assured some defectors last week that there would be no retribution against members who had voted against him. “We’ll see what happens. I might wind up in the broom closet.”

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