U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy is the odds-on favorite to become the second House speaker from California in less than a decade, a remarkable run of clout for the nation’s largest state.
But McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican expected to succeed Speaker John A. Boehner as the most powerful figure in Congress, must overcome a daunting array of political challenges if he is to succeed where Boehner failed.
Like the outgoing speaker, McCarthy will face a Republican insurgency in the House that could thwart his leadership.
McCarthy, 50, also will face stiff head winds back home in liberal California as he pursues an agenda at odds with that of the state’s Democratic leaders.
During his four terms in Congress, McCarthy has tried to roll back some of their landmark policies, including regulations to curb climate change, the pursuit of high-speed rail and aggressive implementation of Obamacare. He also is fighting Gov. Jerry Brown over where to pump the state’s scarce water supply.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who held the speaker’s gavel from 2007 to 2011, had an ally in the White House for the final two years of her tenure. McCarthy would start his with a hostile White House — at least until the 2016 election, if not longer.
Democrats in Sacramento were careful Friday to say they may be able to work with McCarthy on immigration and other issues crucial to the state. They expressed hope he could help win more federal dollars for state transportation and water projects.
“The next speaker will have their hands full with a totally polarized Congress and very serious problems that demand sensible solutions,” Brown said in an email. “California stands ready to work with the next speaker to do what’s right for our state and nation.”
The silverhaired House majority leader and son of a firefighter, McCarthy seemed shocked Friday by his sudden
opportunity to move up the ranks.
“I told Mr. McCarthy about two minutes before I spoke what I was going to do,” Boehner told reporters after he disclosed his abrupt plans to quit at the end of October. “I had to tell him five times because he didn’t believe me.”
The Ohio Republican said members will decide who replaces him, but added, “Kevin McCarthy would make an excellent speaker.”
McCarthy and his staff were careful not to suggest they were celebrating, since his rise would come at the expense of Boehner, a close ally.
“Nobody wants this,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican and one of McCarthy’s closest allies. “McCarthy doesn’t want to be in this position.… It’s not healthy for the Republican Party.”
Indeed, fellow Republicans could cause the most trouble for McCarthy as speaker.
Restive Republicans sought to topple Boehner for most of his speakership.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said McCarthy, who is viewed as more conservative than Boehner, is one of the few lawmakers who could win over the party’s dissident conservative wing.
“But they could try to hold McCarthy hostage,” he added.
Still, the former deli owner has overcome political adversity for much of his career.
Despite his politics decidedly to the right of California voters, McCarthy’s rise is a classic success story in the state — and in Congress.
Unlike past party leaders, whose elevation was built on grand political visions, savvy deal-making or a talent for strong-arming colleagues into submission, McCarthy focused on recruiting candidates and raising money for them.
“He knew everything about every race in the country, literally,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, an Alpine Republican. “He knew who was running in Alabama seat No. 2, how much money they had raised.”
If McCarthy’s colleagues elect him speaker, his rise to the post would be the fastest since Charles Frederick Crisp, a Georgia Democrat, 124 years ago.
McCarthy’s formula for staying one of the most popular members of the Republican caucus is built on care and feeding of colleagues.
“He’s somebody that starts off with workout sessions and bike rides early in the morning with members and finishes late in the evening with either meetings or dinners,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), another close McCarthy ally.
It also involves sidestepping the party’s intramural battles over ideology whenever possible.
McCarthy pursues the same conservative policies that most Republicans back.
But he carefully avoids drawing lines in the sand on social issues and spending priorities that are the hallmark of more combative politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican now running for president.
The lack of a rigid ideology has served McCarthy well in the corridors of the Capitol and on the campaign trail, where he has built close relationships with moderates and tea party stalwarts alike.
Many are indebted to him for his help on campaigns. In several cases, he is the reason they thought to run for Congress at all.
“When we were in the dark days of the minority, Kevin went out almost every single weekend recruiting candidates,” Nunes said. “Four years of his life were spent on the road.”
McCarthy now faces a new challenge, the same one that was arguably the undoing of Boehner. He must choose sides in the bitter ideological battle dividing his party.
“Nice guy, but I think they have bigger issues to resolve,” said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat.
“What happens to the next speaker?” said Serrano. “Will he or she have to be totally beholden to a group that forced Boehner out?”
Archconservatives who align as the Freedom Caucus claimed victory Friday for getting rid of Boehner, and they demanded a
new leader who would embrace their confrontational style.
“If you want to be speaker, you’ve got to sit down with the House Freedom Caucus and say, ‘Hey, what’s your vision?’” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.). “Those will be pointed questions that folks are going to have for McCarthy or anybody else that wants to run for speaker.”
Another insurgent, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), was also skeptical.
“Everybody knows that Kevin’s not a conservative,” he said. “But Kevin seems to be a pretty good manager.”
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli in Washington and Patrick McGreevy and Phil Willon in Sacramento contributed to this report.