WASHINGTON — Not so long ago Kevin McCarthy was working as an aide to his local congressman in hot, dusty Bakersfield, California. Now the genial 49-year-old is a new face of the GOP, selected by House Republicans as their majority leader after a whirlwind round of politicking prompted by last week’s primary election upset of Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
McCarthy’s lightning-fast ascent to the No. 2 House job in just his fourth term is a testament to his political skills and talent for forming and maintaining relationships. Now he has the daunting challenge of working to unite a fractious House Republican caucus that’s still in upheaval after Cantor’s loss, with the most conservative lawmakers smarting over McCarthy’s quick rise.
“I’ll make one promise: I will work every single day to make sure this conference has the courage to lead with the wisdom to listen,” McCarthy said Thursday after his victory in the secret ballot elections.
McCarthy has served as majority whip, the No. 3 job, and will be replaced in that post by Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the chairman of a caucus of conservatives in the House. Scalise adds a Southern, red state voice to a GOP leadership team otherwise populated by establishment-aligned Republicans from the West Coast and Midwest.
“I’m looking forward to bringing a fresh new voice to our leadership table,” Scalise said.
But some of the most conservative lawmakers questioned Scalise’s bona fides and groused that the new team is much like the old one. That could spell troubles ahead in a caucus where conservative rebellions have become routine and McCarthy and other leaders are sometimes at a loss to quell them.
“People told us they wanted a significant change in our leadership team, they wanted us to pursue a more conservative agenda, and I don’t think grass-roots Republicans are going to be satisfied,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who supported McCarthy’s opponent, tea party Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.
Conservatives could mount a new challenge after the November midterm elections, including taking aim at Speaker John Boehner, but Amash said that would be a tough climb.
Thursday’s changes were set in motion by Cantor’s surprise defeat last week at the hands of Dave Brat, a little known college economics professor. Brat’s victory registered with a jolt of excitement to conservatives, yet the purists didn’t have the organization to capitalize on their success, and McCarthy moved quickly.
Deploying an organization developed since he became whip more than three years ago when Republicans took control of the House, he swiftly contacted lawmakers over the phone and on the House floor, locking in their support and scaring off the competition.
One potential rival, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, decided against joining the race, while another, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, deferred to a second Texan, Rep. Pete Sessions. Sessions quickly dropped out, saying it was obvious that a successful campaign would have created painful divisions within the party.
By the time Labrador jumped in, the California front-runner had amassed support from across the rank and file. He was aided by the fundraising prowess he has displayed since joining the leadership, doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars through his PAC to Republican House candidates and organizations.
McCarthy also drew on strong personal ties to lawmakers that he cultivates daily, from early morning workouts and bike rides to bowling or movie nights with fellow lawmakers. At dinners he’ll go around the table drawing out new members of Congress by asking them to share the first concert they ever attended, or their most embarrassing moment.
“He’s a hard guy not to like,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said.
McCarthy, who sleeps in his Capitol office when in Washington, is known as a storehouse of political information, on voting patterns and district makeup, and of personal tidbits on lawmakers, like kids’ names and alma maters.
He’s also organized in his personal habits, according to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., who shared a group house with McCarthy in Sacramento when both were California lawmakers. Once there was a break-in and McCarthy was the one to notice it, Denham said — others were too messy to tell.
McCarthy was first elected to Congress in 2006, after serving in the California Assembly — where he was chosen minority leader in his first term — and as an aide to Rep. Bill Thomas of his hometown of Bakersfield, who became his political mentor.
McCarthy was named chief deputy whip by Cantor in 2009 and became whip after Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 elections. He now becomes a contender to replace Boehner once the speaker steps aside.
McCarthy is the first House member to become majority or minority leader after serving fewer than five full terms in the chamber, said Eric Ostermeier, research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.