Rep. Kevin McCarthy is potentially on the cusp of a moment he's waited years for – though it might not have been the one he envisioned.

Not long after entering Congress in 2007, the Republican from Bakersfield, Calif., entered the ranks of House Republican leadership. In 2015, he sought to become House speaker, only to bow out of the race when he could not consolidate the support of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans.

With votes still yet to be counted in Tuesday's elections, Republicans are favored to retake the House of Representatives, meaning that the 57-year-old McCarthy is on the cusp of finally grabbing that brass ring. 

"When you wake up tomorrow, we will be in the majority," McCarthy told supporters at a post-Election Day rally. The Associated Press has not yet projected which party will control the House.

But should Republicans retake the House, the margin in the chamber will be a far cry from the 60-seat flip that McCarthy said was possible last year. Thanks to Democratic resilience in key districts, the so-called "red wave" that many Republicans predicted never materialized.

With a smaller majority than McCarthy may have envisioned, the Republican leader may face challenges trying to keep his caucus together – and possibly even a challenge to his potential speakership.

"If he's got a smaller majority, then you could have a real challenge," said Matt Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University of America who studies congressional leadership, in an interview conducted prior to Tuesday's election. "That's certainly true of the current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who has a small majority."

"But McCarthy, his party is likely to have a real diverse range of members, including folks who are not fans of compromise or cooperation, and who tend to focus more on position-taking and ... attacking Democrats as opposed to trying to work together to pass legislation," he added.

Will McCarthy face a challenge over the gavel?

Prior to Tuesday's results, at least one Republican lawmaker predicted McCarthy would win the speakership, though he will likely face a challenge.

“There will be someone who runs against him, which is good, good debate, hold people accountable, make him answer tough questions,” Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., told Spectrum News last month. At the time, Garcia was confident Republicans would regain the majority, although he did not say who might oppose McCarthy.

Garcia added, “It's okay to have an opposition force, even within your own party. But in the end, I think everyone recognizes that Kevin has been leading this party very well. It's tough to take a spectrum of personalities and political beliefs and push them down range in a coordinated fashion.”

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who is poised to be the next chairman of the House Oversight Committee, also predicts McCarthy will be elected speaker. “I think the majority of the conference is strongly behind McCarthy,” he said last month. “I don't know of anyone else who's shown their name out there.”

After quitting the speaker’s race seven years ago, McCarthy worked diligently to be in a position to run again, building a rapport with then President Donald Trump and courting the hard right wing of House Republicans.

“McCarthy has been trying, in recent years, particularly in his current congress to bridge that gap between more mainstream Republicans in his conference, and more extreme members of his conference, who are also generally in the Freedom Caucus,” said Green.

The Freedom Caucus helped to push Republican John Boehner, R-Ohio, out as House speaker in 2015 and wounded McCarthy’s bid for speaker at the time, when it announced it could not back him. McCarthy also hurt his candidacy back then when he gave an interview suggesting the Republican-led investigation of the attack on U.S. diplomats in Bengazi, Libya was about trying to damage Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential ambitions.

While courting the Freedom Caucus in the years since has put McCarthy in a position to finally become speaker, there is a downside, Green said, especially with a slim majority.

“The first is that it empowers these members, so in other words, they now feel that they have real influence,” he explained.

“We've seen some of them already in his party in this Congress giving him some challenges like Marjorie Taylor Greene [of Georgia] and Lauren Boebert [of Colorado]  but he could conceivably have a much larger group of members like that, who are willing to challenge him and say, ‘I don't want to do what you're asking us to do, Speaker McCarthy, I think it's wrong, and I'm not going to vote with you.’ And if McCarthy has a small majority, that could cause him some real challenges.” 

John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center and former chief of staff to current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says McCarthy will have his hands full trying to keep the Freedom Caucus happy while also shepherding crucial legislation, such as bills to raise the nation’s debt limit and fund the government.

“He's got people who are going to be far more extreme than the Tea Party coming in [in 2023]. Some of them are there already,” said Lawrence. “If you can't produce the votes to pass a continuing revolution or raise the debt ceiling, there can be a real problem.”

He said, unlike Pelosi, Boehner had trouble making deals that his more ideologically extreme members could accept. He says this could also be a problem for McCarthy. “I don't know if McCarthy has that kind of skill,” said Lawrence. “Nothing I've read about him suggests that he has that kind of tactical and strategic acumen that Mrs. Pelosi has been able to demonstrate with her caucus.” 

Comer: McCarthy may have 'tough job' wrangling GOP caucus

McCarthy also must face the consequences of his loyalty to Trump. Although McCarthy initially did condemn Trump for his role leading up to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, he has done little to quell Trump's false claims of a stolen 2020 election. McCarthy, along with 125 other GOP members, signed on to an amicus brief supporting a Texas lawsuit that asked the Supreme Court to overturn the 2020 election results.

“When you're speaker, you're also the representative of the entire chamber. You have to have some institutional loyalty and responsibility. And so I think those are some serious problems that McCarthy faces,” added Green.

Comer acknowledges McCarthy will have to continue working at uniting the Republican caucus.

“I think McCarthy is gonna have a tough job….  We have strong positions, and it's, you know, it's hard sometimes to compromise, but that's what the leader is going to have to do. It's much more difficult being in the majority than in the minority, because in the majority, you have to govern.”

McCarthy tried to unite the different wings of his caucus through his ‘Commitment to America,’ a kind of campaign manifesto he rolled out in September surrounded by about 30 House Republicans. The plan, reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 ‘Contract with America,’ is built on four pillars: tackling crime, growing the economy, providing government accountability, and promoting individual freedoms.

“We work for the American public, it's not the other way around, and so what you need to do is have a plan for a new direction. That’s what the Commitment to America is,” McCarthy told Spectrum News after the roll out.

“We spent the last year and a half listening to Americans, they're concerned about the cost of living, about inflation. So we're gonna build an economy that's strong. We've watched crime rise from Portland to Philadelphia, to levels we haven't seen in 20 years. So we're gonna build a nation that's safe. We've watched the DOJ go after parents and call them terrorists, simply because they go to a school board meeting. So we're going to build a future based upon freedoms and pass a parent's Bill of Rights, then we've watched what happened with the government not being held accountable. So we're going to build and hold this government accountable in the process.”

But the plan is vague on details. When pressed by Spectrum News how he would pay for items in his agenda,” McCarthy said, “The first thing we do is cut the spending.” When asked if he would support a national abortion ban, to carry out the Commitment’s pledge to “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers,” McCarthy said, “It sounds like you got the talking points from the Democrats only focused on abortion.”

“You got to be able to answer those questions. There's a non-answer, and then there's a refusal to answer and that that's one thing if you're a leader of the minority, people aren't paying that much attention to you. When you're Speaker of the House, every word matters,” Green said. 

“He is not much of a policy maven. He doesn't seem to have a particular interest in policy or any sort of policy specialty. And that's a problem, because a lot of the fights that happen when you're speaker are over policy details. So you really need to understand policy and know kind of what the consequences are of one versus another or one provision in a bill versus another.”

But Green says there is hope that McCarthy can succeed where his two Republican predecessors, Boehner and Paul Ryan, did not.

“He's got a huge amount of energy, he is constantly on the move, he is willing to support his members to fundraise, go to their districts, etc. He knows his congressional districts inside and out, which is very helpful when you're trying to lead a party,” Green said.

Spectrum News' Justin Tasolides contributed to this report.