The lock that Rep. Kevin McCarthy appears to have put on the House majority leader's job has been forged swiftly, stylishly and all but certainly.
Part of the reason the affable Republican from California's conservative Central Valley has been able to lay claim to the office so quickly is because, as the No. 3 GOP leader, he was in line when Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia unexpectedly lost his primary.
Another part lies in McCarthy's close relationships with so many of the House Republicans who will be voting in the internal party election next week — the lawmakers elected in 2010 and 2012 whom he personally recruited and has nurtured with pep talks at after-hours steak dinners.
But what has cleared the way for the 49-year-old McCarthy more than anything is the inability of the tea-party-fueled insurgents among House Republicans to come together behind a preferred candidate.
That failing, which also doomed an effort last year to unseat Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, reflects the difficulty the conservatives have faced in changing from a grass-roots-inspired insurgency into a governing force.
In the days since Cantor's surprise loss, the names of several conservative champions — Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Jim Jordan of Ohio — have been floated as choices for the majority leader's post, only to be dropped.
That left McCarthy facing just one remaining rival, Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, a former partner turned rival, who announced late Thursday that he was dropping out of the race.
“After thoughtful consideration and discussion with my colleagues, I have made the decision to not continue my run for House majority leader,” Sessions said in a statement. “Today, it became obvious to me that the measures necessary to run a successful campaign would have created unnecessary and painful division within our party. At this critical time, we must remain unified as a Republican conference.”
Earlier in the day, Sessions' supporters in the large and heavily Republican Texas delegation had insisted they were fired up to make one last stand in a contest that was in many ways a cultural showdown between the two states.
Conservative lawmakers have pushed for red-state leadership in the House, arguing that California, among the bluest of blue states, is not worthy of such a prominent seat at the table. The top positions in the House Republican leadership all belong to members elected from states that President Obama carried in the last two elections.
A similar red state vs. blue state dynamic forms a big part of the other leadership race — the one to fill McCarthy's job of party whip. The chief deputy whip, Peter Roskam of Illinois, faces two red-state opponents, Reps. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, elected in 2010, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a leader of the House's conservative bloc.
The argument over what sort of leadership the party should choose in the House reflected the broader contest within the GOP pitting its establishment business wing against populist conservatives. “It becomes a polar choice,” said Rep. John Fleming, a conservative from Louisiana who attended a morning meeting of Southern state lawmakers with both McCarthy and Sessions and remained undecided afterward.
The race began in earnest Thursday, with a series of public and private gestures to convey a sense of momentum.
McCarthy was seen on the House floor talking with Rep. Raul R. Labrador of Idaho, a tea party favorite who had been rumored to be considering a challenge, and buttonholing another Western state conservative in the halls. Sessions had lunch with the powerful Texas delegation behind closed doors, with a star visit from tea party darling Sen. Ted Cruz.
Typically, those with a running start do best in leadership races — “speed kills,” offered one GOP leadership aide — cementing support before others can gain traction.
In this case, both men flew from the starting gate with Cantor's defeat, though subtle differences in their approaches may have widened what was already McCarthy's early lead.
The Californian made a soft sell initially, declining to launch a full-throttled run until after Cantor announced his resignation Wednesday. Sessions startled some colleagues by texting and calling late Tuesday night as news of Cantor's defeat rippled across Washington.
Key for McCarthy, observers said, was to project an air of invincibility without seeming to assume a coronation. This is not the time to be “running in the end zone, spiking the football,” one GOP aide said.
The Texans, meanwhile, had sought to reclaim what many viewed as not only their rightful hold on GOP leadership — the Lone Star State has produced a long list of storied House majority leaders, from Democrat Sam Rayburn to Republican Tom DeLay — but a rightward direction for the House.
“The agenda moving forward needs to be a conservative agenda,” Sessions said earlier in the day. “Conservatives need a bigger, better role in this process.”
Sessions, a decade older than McCarthy, was his boss at the Republican campaign committee in 2010, when they brought Republicans to the House majority.
He had hoped to win the whip's job that year, but McCarthy moved past him. Then McCarthy, early in his new post, took several high-profile stumbles when his vote-counting as whip faltered. His missteps exposed Republicans to embarrassing moments as high-
priority bills were defeated or had to be yanked from the floor.
“We several times have found ourselves tangled in our ability to get all of our team together,” Sessions said.
More recently, however, McCarthy appears to have done better, and his close relationships with other lawmakers stood him in good stead. So did seemingly simple logistical advantages. As whip, he has almost all members' private cellphone numbers and email addresses.
Moreover, conservatives did not unite behind Sessions, and talk continues about another last-minute candidacy. One Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some members viewed Sessions, appointed by Boehner to his current committee chairmanship, as a “tool of leadership — he's staying in there long enough to make it look like there's a race.”