A Republican from a heavily Latino district in a deep blue state – 49-year-old Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Calif. – is about to lead a party that is deeply Southern, heavily white and in thrall more than ever to its conservative Tea Party faction.
On Thursday, the former deli owner from California’s Central Valley who has said he would be open to immigration reform, has seized the post of majority leader, the second-highest in the House. The job suddenly was vacated last week by Rep. Eric Cantor, toppled by a Tea Party insurgent who accused the Virginian of pushing amnesty for immigrants.
With McCarthy’s elevation, California stands to hold two of the three highest positions in the House in both parties: San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi leads Democrats, and McCarthy will rank just behind Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and become his clearest heir-apparent.
McCarthy by all accounts has one trait what Cantor lacked: an eager affability and willingness to listen that has charmed even Democrats and propelled his rapid rise to the top of Washington’s power structure.
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He will need those skills in spades as his national visibility rises exponentially and he sets about uniting a party that has embarrassed its leadership on big legislation where he, as Republican whip, was in charge of counting votes.
“He would rather listen and learn before he leads,” said Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a business policy organization. Guardino, who has known McCarthy since he was a freshman in the minority of the state Assembly not much more than a decade ago, said McCarthy “listens 100 percent of the time, and in the coin of Silicon Valley, that is incredibly important.”
In his four terms in the House, McCarthy has never even chaired a subcommittee. But he has cultivated a large and loyal following in Silicon Valley as well as the agricultural Central Valley, building a huge fundraising base and network of connections that ranges from lowly freshmen he has recruited to run to actor Kevin Spacey, who tailed McCarthy while researching his role in “House of Cards,” the dark television drama about the lust for power in Washington.
A native of Bakersfield and son of fourth-generation Kern County Democrats, McCarthy became a Republican after experiencing irksome regulations at the deli he opened after dropping out of community college.
His rise in politics began when he was rejected after applying for an intern job with former Bakersfield Rep. Bill Thomas. He offered to work for free and eventually became district director for Thomas, who endorsed him to fill his seat in 2006.
In between, McCarthy became national chairman of the Young Republicans and the first freshman to become GOP leader in the state Assembly.
In Congress, McCarthy joined the self-styled “Young Guns,” aligning himself closely with GOP stars Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan, the Budget Committee chairman and 2012 vice-presidential nominee. Soon put in charge of recruiting new members, he built a deep and loyal following in Republican ranks.
“He just makes you feel like you’ve known him your whole life,” Tennessee Rep. Steven Fincher told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2011.
A graduate of California State University Bakersfield, McCarthy is known as neither a policy heavyweight nor a rousing speaker.
But McCarthy knows how to charm, rotating photographs of fellow Republicans on his office walls so they see themselves on visits. “That’s a nice touch,” said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University, showing that McCarthy is “a hands-on guy there to massage various egos and make sure people are comfortable.”
McCarthy, who sometimes sleeps in his office, travels constantly and puts in 20-hour days. And he assiduously courts businesses large and small.
“He’s spent a ton of time in the Valley to really understand how our companies work,” said Linda Moore president of TechNet, a Silicon Valley business group. He visits monthly, doing roundtables with executives and employees, and for the last two years has towed along fellow Republicans in groups of five or six to learn the Valley’s ways.
The fundraising came after the policy visits, according to Guardino. Unlike most politicians, he said, McCarthy never approached the Valley as an ATM machine.
“Everyone wants to kiss on the first date,” Guardino said. “Instead, it was a long-term relationship building around policy that earned the respect of myself and scores of leaders in Silicon Valley who then have been responsive politically.”
Longtime Washington political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the most important element of McCarthy’s rapid rise is “his skill at interpersonal relations, the relationships he’s built with wide range of members, so they trust he’s not going to be aloof, that he'll listen to them, that he’s a trustworthy figure.”
The second is that the election to replace Cantor is happening so fast that conservatives had no time to mobilize. McCarthy faces a lone opponent, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, after two potential Texas rivals – Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Pete Sessions – folded within hours of Cantor’s primary defeat.
Republicans were eager to avoid a civil war near the fall elections. But the prospect of having no red-state representation in the GOP leadership has made conservative Louisiana firebrand Steve Scalise the leading contender for McCarthy’s old whip job – and an ever-present warning to the leadership not to drift too far to the center, especially on immigration.
McCarthy also represents something of a shift for the House GOP leadership, which for years was dominated by Southerners such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
McCarthy’s rise stems in part from a sense within the GOP that to win nationally, Republicans “can’t just be seen as a Southern party,” said Eric Schickler, a UC Berkeley political scientist.
McCarthy’s district is 35 percent Latino, and he has indicated that he would be open to a path to allow immigrants who entered the country illegally to stay. He has felt intense pressure from farm and tech interests to expand legal immigration. But his rise in the leadership is no sign, especially following Cantor’s loss, that McCarthy will push the issue.
Fellow Republicans“understand the nature of his district, and trust him enough know he is not likely to undermine those with other points of view to promote his own,” Ornstein said.
“Although he’s given hints that he would be open to some kind of immigration reform,” Gerston added, “that’s certainly going to be jettisoned.”