Californian well-prepared to be GOP House whip
Rep. Kevin McCarthy wasn’t content to stay in his Bakersfield district this campaign season. Instead, he traveled to Frog Jump, Tenn., Lake Oswego, Ore., Sioux Falls, S.D., and dozens of other places to help elect fellow Republicans.
The airport hassles, long drives and uncomfortable nights at budget motels are paying off. This week McCarthy is expected to be elected House majority whip, his party’s No. 3 leadership job, after winning only his third term in Congress — a reward for his work in helping to bring the Republicans to power.
McCarthy, 45, will become the first Republican from California to serve in the position while his party holds the majority.
“It’s pretty stunning for a third-term member to rise as quickly as he has,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. It’s also surprising given that the new whip was once turned down for a congressional internship.
“It’s still so overwhelming that they even allow me in the building,” McCarthy said in an interview Friday.
The former California Assembly GOP leader will be responsible for counting noses and enforcing party discipline on important votes. He also will carry to the airwaves his party’s messages for a smaller, less costly federal government.
With McCarthy in the No. 3 leadership position and California Republicans expected to lead more committees than members from any other state, the Democratic-leaning Golden State will wield considerable clout in the new Republican-controlled House.
McCarthy could find the job a steppingstone to higher positions. Among those who have served as their party’s whips are Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), former Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Wyoming congressman.
McCarthy was elected Republican leader of the California Assembly as a 38-year-old freshman in 2003, only three years after he won his first election to the Kern Community College District board.
After he was elected to Congress in 2006, he was no backbencher. He already had worked for former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) for years. When he couldn’t get an internship with Thomas because the slots were filled, he offered to work as volunteer, first tending to the congressman’s press clippings and later rising to become district director.
McCarthy succeeded the retiring Thomas in a solidly Republican district that takes in most of Kern and San Luis Obispo Counties, stretches into northeastern Los Angeles County and is a center of agriculture and oil production.
“He has all of Bill Thomas’ smarts, but none of his gruff demeanor,” said John Feehery, a former House GOP leadership aide.
Drawing on substantial contributions he received from financial and insurance industries he oversees as a member of the House Financial Services Committee, he provided about $1.6 million from his own political war chest this cycle to the party and more than 100 fellow Republicans.
McCarthy’s legislative achievements are limited by the fact that he spent his eight years in Sacramento and Washington in the minority, but he promises to wield greater influence once Republicans take over the House in January.
“Let’s see with the next Congress how much of the Pledge to America becomes law,” he said, referring to the GOP agenda he helped draft.
McCarthy is among a group of Republicans who have drawn criticism for voting against the economic stimulus and then seeking stimulus funds for local projects. He has repeatedly used the line that more people believe Elvis Presley is alive than believe the stimulus created jobs.
Yet he wrote the Transportation secretary seeking $30 million in stimulus funds for truck lanes on Interstate 5, saying the project would “quickly put people to work,” according to the Center for Public Integrity. McCarthy shrugged at the criticism. “I still don’t believe the stimulus worked … and I’m proud of my vote against it,” he said.
Colleagues say McCarthy, who married his high school sweetheart and has a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, lives and breathes and perhaps even dreams about politics; he sleeps on an air mattress in his Capitol Hill office.
He is described as having an encyclopedic knowledge about his House colleagues’ idiosyncrasies and political needs — a man who has pored over the profiles of lawmakers and their districts in the thick Almanac of American Politics on flights between California and Washington.
“I have trouble thinking of a time I’ve talked to Kevin in the last year where, when he picked up his cellphone, he wasn’t in some other state, recruiting some candidate in some area I’ve never heard of,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and a California Republican Party vice chairman.
In December 2008, McCarthy was tapped by current GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia to be chief deputy whip. With Cantor moving up to become House majority leader, McCarthy is moving up to whip.
Some of his success has been due to luck. At age 20, McCarthy won $5,000 on the first lottery ticket he had ever bought. He invested it in the stock market and used the money he made to open a deli, Kevin O’s.
It was “the city giving me a problem about how long I could hang my sign” that got him interested in politics. He eventually used the proceeds from the deli’s sale to put himself through Cal State Bakersfield.
McCarthy’s national profile was raised when he was featured on the cover of the conservative magazine Weekly Standard in 2007 with Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) under the headline, “Young Guns of the House GOP.”
As whip, McCarthy, son of an assistant fire chief, could find himself having to put out fires within his caucus, uniting the newly elected “tea party” Republicans and establishment Republicans. Thomas said his protege is well-suited for the job.
“Frankly, a lot of the people coming in are people he got to come in,” Thomas said. “What better person to go to them than the one who went to North Dakota in January and said, ‘I’d like you to run for office. We’ll do everything we can to help you.’”
“So when he comes around and says, ‘Can I have a vote on this?’ it’s kind of hard for them to say no,” Thomas said.
In announcing his candidacy for the whip job, McCarthy said that he studied up on conservative districts represented by Democrats, which would help him find Democratic votes to challenge President Obama.
“If we are strategic, we can recruit a number of Democrats to break with President Obama and vote with us, or be held accountable by their constituents in 2012,” McCarthy said in a letter to colleagues.