The son of a Bakersfield, Calif., firefighter, Rep. Kevin McCarthy has carried plenty of political hose to get where he is now, perched on the edge of real power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But water-charged lines, McCarthy already knows, can also have minds of their own. He’s about to seize control of a fractious Republican House caucus. The question is, what can he do with it now, given his quick political ascent following House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning downfall this week when he lost his primary contest in Virginia?
“He'll face the same challenges as Cantor: trying to keep the party together while having to allow it to be rolled on occasion when the alternative is shutting down the government or throwing global markets into a tizzy,” said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
McCarthy’s California colleague, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, offered a rosier assessment: “He’s well-positioned. He was well-positioned when this campaign started.”
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After a quick race that illustrated his political strengths, as well as the enduring GOP divisions that will complicate his job, McCarthy effectively secured his selection as the next House majority leader when Texas Republican Rep. Pete Sessions dropped out late Thursday night.
Another contender emerged Friday. Rep. Raul Labrador, a second-term Republican from Idaho, said he’d enter the race. He does so with a boost from some of the strong conservatives in the party, who’ve objected often to the current leadership team’s handling of issues such as immigration and the debt ceiling.
But most expect the 233-member Republican caucus to formally elevate McCarthy next week in a secret ballot. To many, it’s all over now but the toasting.
McCarthy is currently the House majority whip, the No. 3 position in the House GOP hierarchy. With his election, the genial 49-year-old former businessman will become the first lawmaker from California’s sprawling Central Valley to hold the House’s No. 2 spot. The only Californian who’s vaulted higher is former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and ideological polar opposite with whom he nonetheless shares some political attributes.
McCarthy, like Pelosi, is a diligent builder of personal networks, a rememberer of birthdays and the political needs of colleagues. He builds the GOP team by inviting lawmakers to discuss their first concerts or their most embarrassing moments. The hallways in his first-floor Capitol office are adorned with a revolving set of members’ photographs. It’s a place to find late-night pizza.
Like Pelosi, who also served as her party’s whip, McCarthy has had to corral votes with fewer traditional tools at his disposal.
“Being whip now is different than with the whips in the past,” McCarthy acknowledged in an interview with McClatchy last year. “The country is different; the rules are different. It’s a different time.”
Like Pelosi, McCarthy has racked up endless frequent flier miles campaigning for others, who’ve reciprocated his loyalty. This election cycle alone, he’s visited 41 congressional districts, with more trips planned. And, like Pelosi, he’s a tireless fundraiser for his party.
That job goes with the territory. McCarthy has done nothing that previous Republicans whips haven’t done. Former Reps. Tom DeLay of Texas and Roy Blunt of Missouri, who’s now across the Capitol in the Senate, constantly crisscrossed the country to help build up the party’s strength and secure personal loyalty.
Since 2008, McCarthy has distributed more than $2.3 million to fellow Republicans through his leadership political action committee, records show. Through his overstuffed individual campaign account, which held $2.9 million in reserve as of mid-May, McCarthy has made additional contributions to candidates and party committees.
“He’s done a great job of recruiting candidates,” Nunes said, and “he’s made the trains run on time.”
To date, McCarthy has made his mark more with political tactics than with legislative authorship.
Cantor also used fundraising for political and party advantage. Securities and investment companies have been the leading contributors to both men, records compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics show.
“Cantor and McCarthy are allies, for sure, and few major shifts in substance can be expected,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said in an interview Friday. “But they have very different personalities and approaches. McCarthy is a better public speaker, and he doesn’t come across as aloof in the way Cantor did.”
Cantor and McCarthy teamed up early in their congressional careers, to their mutual advantage. They dubbed themselves in 2008 – along with Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who’d be the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee – the “Young Guns” who were going to topple the House Democratic establishment.
“A Jewish guy from Virginia, an Irish Catholic from Wisconsin and a California Baptist walk into Congress,” the three lawmakers declared, half-jokingly, at the start of a 200-plus page manifesto.
A graduate of California State University, Bakersfield, where he also earned an MBA, McCarthy ran a deli and a batting range before starting his political career with his 2002 election to the State Assembly. In 2006, he first won election to the House.
His wife and two children have remained home in California, where he returns on weekends. On Thursday, McCarthy used his Facebook page to wish a happy birthday to his late father, who passed away 14 years ago.
McCarthy’s reward for helping Republicans regain House control in the 2010 elections was the majority whip’s position, the party’s chief vote counter. It’s a job made harder recently by the elimination of some old-school vote inducements such as budget earmarks, as well as the ability of freelancing members to raise money and media attention on their own.
In some early embarrassments, the GOP leadership team had to pull some legislative measures from the House floor in the face of probable defeat. In other cases, such as a key 2011 vote to keep the government from shutting down, party leaders needed Democratic support to offset the defection of 59 hard-core House conservatives.
“He’s kind of battle-tested in his position,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.
The GOP divisions still exist and will make McCarthy’s job harder. One Republican activist who opposed Cantor, National Review columnist Mark Steyn, is against McCarthy’s pending promotion, on Thursday calling it “business as usual.”
The divisions might even make their way into the Republicans’ new leadership team.
McCarthy’s chief deputy whip, Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, is being challenged from the right for the whip’s position by Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise. Last October, Scalise was among 144 House Republicans who voted against reopening the federal government and avoiding a potential debt default.