On Election Night, as dusk settled upon the city, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, as ever, was relaxed. His thick salt-and-pepper hair was brushed back; the sleeves of his starched white shirt rolled up. And the flat-screen television in his Capitol Hill office was tuned to Extra, the celebrity-news program.
As McCarthy pored over campaign data, he bantered with his young aides about the filmography of actor Robert Downey Jr., who was being profiled. “Underrated,” McCarthy mused, in his loose, Southern California drawl. “Iron Man was fun, but he’s made a bunch of good films.”
McCarthy has an eye for talent. As vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he recruited hundreds of candidates this cycle, jetting to far-flung outposts in North Dakota, Tennessee, and Oregon. “A lot of eating at the local Bob Evans,” he chuckles, as we chat over Thanksgiving weekend.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Bob Evans. McCarthy embraces life on the trail, even bunking in cramped motel rooms — better quarters than he has in Washington, where he lives out of his House digs, sleeping on an air mattress. Of course, as he crisscrossed the country, he missed his wife Judy (his high-school sweetheart) and his two teenagers. But those red-eye flights and rubber-chicken dinners paid off: Republicans got on the ballot in 431 of 435 House districts, and the GOP picked up over 60 seats.
Two weeks following the Republican wave, McCarthy was unanimously elected majority whip, the No. 3 leadership position in the House, a post formerly occupied by Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich. In coming months, as he works alongside presumptive speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the incoming majority leader, McCarthy, a 45-year-old Bakersfield, Calif., native, will be not only the party’s chief vote-counter, but also one of its freshest faces.
Unlike former GOP congressman Tom DeLay, the kick-ass, take-names Texan who served as majority whip from 1995 to 2003 and was just convicted of money laundering, McCarthy will likely never be known as “The Hammer.” Instead, his style is Valley-dude casual: Picture Jeff Bridges from The Big Lebowski memorizing The Almanac of American Politics. But beneath his at-ease manner and quick grin is a hard-boiled commitment to shake up Congress, and to avoid the mistakes of Republicans past.
McCarthy, who directed the GOP’s “Pledge to America” project and co-wrote Young Guns, a clear-eyed campaign manifesto, with Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, tells me that he has been waiting for this moment since he first entered the Capitol as a freshman in January 2007. At the time, Nancy Pelosi was ascending to the speaker’s chair and House Republicans were wallowing in defeat, miserable over their majority-ending thumpin’.
“Since then, I’ve studied the past, looking at where both parties went wrong,” McCarthy says. “My goal as whip is to make sure that bills survive based on the strength of their idea, not because of legislative games. We know our philosophy and know our principles, so we shouldn’t be afraid of being challenged. That will only make us stronger.
“When I was in the minority, I saw what the majority did to destroy debate on the floor,” McCarthy sighs. “Bills got written in the back of a room by a select few. In the last two years, we haven’t even had an ‘open rule,’ which enables amendments to be offered. That model is over: My job is to ensure that good policy gets through — encouraging an honest debate, where all members, Republicans and Democrats, are equal.”