Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s election as House majority leader continued one of the swiftest political ascents in congressional history and marked another triumph for establishment Republican forces over the party’s conservative flank.
House Republicans chose the Bakersfield congressman to replace Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia as their leader in a secret ballot Thursday, slightly more than a week after Cantor’s shocking defeat in a primary election.
McCarthy’s elevation from majority whip represents a change of style, but likely not the shift to a more confrontational approach some conservatives had called for. McCarthy is widely considered more genial than Cantor and has closer personal ties with many members, but worked closely with him and shares many of his views.
To replace McCarthy in the leadership’s third-ranking job, GOP lawmakers chose Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the largest organized group of conservative lawmakers in the House. His victory was welcomed by allies of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who viewed it as a nod to the restless right that could balance out the leadership team.
In brief remarks to reporters after the votes, surrounded by other members of the leadership, McCarthy promised to make sure House Republicans had “the courage to lead with the wisdom to listen.”
“We'll turn this country around,” he vowed.
Scalise said he was “looking forward to bringing a fresh new voice to our leadership table.” He defeated Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, the chief deputy whip, and Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman after only one round of voting.
Though policy fights that can split Republicans loom in the months ahead — a promised vote on an alternative to President Obama’s healthcare law, a new government funding measure due by Oct. 1, and a possible fight over the fate of the Export-Import Bank — those seeking to change the House leadership more dramatically proved unable to mount more than a rhetorical challenge.
McCarthy’s sole challenger was Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho), a second-term lawmaker who announced his bid only last Friday. His support was limited to some of the House's most conservative members.
“You would think that people who have been plotting this big takeover of leadership for months and months and months or years, that you would at least have a plan to move forward,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), long a critic of what he now calls the “exotic club” of tea party members in the GOP ranks.
In a gesture to promote unity, Labrador released his votes after the outcome was announced in the closed-door meeting, saying the vote should be unanimous. But some of the lawmakers who have vexed leadership in recent years said McCarthy should not assume he would hold the post for long.
“It may not be a stable arrangement,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). “Let's give him a chance, two to three months in front of the cameras, see how he does.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) said he already had heard from other members who wanted to pose another challenge in November, even though he acknowledged that such an election would be more difficult.
“Today was our best chance to change things at the top,” Amash said. “I don’t think the results today are going to satisfy ordinary Americans. I’m not talking about tea party — ordinary Americans, regular Republicans.”
More moderate Republicans saw McCarthy’s election as a clear victory for their side.
“Some of our members have to understand that if the job of the majority leader were to get everybody to vote no, then the other guy would have won,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), one of the few moderates in the caucus.
Still, even those who seemed pleased with the outcome appeared uncertain about the new leadership’s durability.
“It’s the leadership for the next couple of months,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas). “We really do have new energy, new unity — perhaps.”
House Republicans will not have long to decide whether they’re happy with the new team. Cantor leaves the majority leader’s office at the end of July. Because of the long August recess and time off for campaigning in the fall, the House has only 12 workdays scheduled between then and the date on which new elections would take place the week after the midterm balloting.
McCarthy, 49, will be the first Californian to serve in the House's second-ranking position when he formally assumes the role. First elected in 2006, he has served since 2011 as the House majority whip.
His rapid climb is taking place at a time of significant turnover in Congress. McCarthy has served less time in the House than any of the chamber's committee chairs. Boehner had served for 15 years before he became majority leader in 2006. McCarthy was a still a staffer for then-Rep. Bill Thomas when Boehner first joined the leadership ranks.
McCarthy served for four years in the California Assembly, including two years as minority leader, before he was elected to Congress from a district that includes his hometown of Bakersfield and most of the Antelope Valley. He played a key role in recruiting a class of candidates in 2010 that helped Republicans win back control of the House, and has raised millions to help keep the party in power.
Cantor had sought to use the majority leader job to shape policy designed to broaden the GOP's appeal, though at times he faced resistance on key issues such as immigration reform. McCarthy is seen as more of a political strategist than policy wonk, and one of his pledges to colleagues this week was to give committee leaders greater say over the legislative agenda.
“He knows the issues, he knows the players, he's dealt with the Democrats. So he's got about as good a preparation as you can have for the kind of job he's moving into,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a top Boehner ally. “This is a job he knows well, and he'll decide what direction he wants to move. I think members are very much at ease that he will discharge his duties competently, and he will be loyal to the speaker.”
Democrats downplayed the significance of Thursday’s result. “It makes no difference who their leaders are because their leaders always follow their base,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign committee.
Advocates for immigration reform, which has stalled in the House, pounced on the ascent of the California Republican as a pressure point.
“While congressman Kevin McCarthy steps into his new role, he has the ability to help lead the House toward common-sense immigration reform or cater to the extremists in his party,” said Rocio Saenz, executive vice president at the Service Employees International Union, which supports an immigration policy overhaul.
“If he chooses to side with the extremists in his party, he will drag his party to a costly failure.”
Boehner has said he intends to run for a third term as speaker if, as expected, Republicans hold the majority after November's midterm election. McCarthy's selection Thursday makes him the heir apparent if Boehner gives up the post after 2015.