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.”
McCarthy promises to immediately usher in a new operating culture on the House floor. “Any member will be able to offer an amendment on a spending bill,” he says. “We will open up the floor, not only for both parties, but for the American people to get involved in the process. That’ll lead to the best legislative product. From cameras in the Rules Committee to putting bills online at least 72 hours before a vote, we will enable people to know what’s happening, read the bills, and understand the debate. Better ideas will emerge, and the process will keep leadership power in check. It’ll be a healthy change.”
McCarthy emphasizes that both Boehner and Cantor have been nothing but supportive of his sunshine-centric approach. “Looking at how many freshmen there are, and knowing so many of them, it’s clear that they are the closest thing to a direct message from the American people. We get that,” he says.
“The House was designed by the Founding Fathers to be the revolutionary body, because we’re up for election every two years,” McCarthy continues. “We do not want to make the mistakes of the past where Washington becomes a body of seniority. These new voices will be heard. I give Leader Boehner a lot of credit for expanding the role of freshmen inside the conference, further than I’ve ever seen.” He points to freshmen-elect Tim Scott of South Carolina and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who were recently tapped for leadership positions, as prime examples of how GOP leaders are responding to the political winds.
Still, McCarthy’s enthusiasm for the incoming class will soon be tested as he begins to whip votes on raising the debt ceiling, extending the Bush-era tax cuts, and other big-ticket budget items. “Look, you want to be able to have a conference that is like a family, where you can have an open discussion,” he says. “At this point, I really think that we are united, especially when it comes to jobs, spending, and opening up Washington.”
McCarthy, though only wrapping up his second term, begins his new gig with ample experience in navigating tricky political waters. For the past two years, he has served as chief deputy whip under Cantor, learning the fine art of counting noses. The pair have shared Capitol office space and worked closely together on whipping high-profile bills, from the “stimulus” to Obamacare, that Republicans opposed with near-unanimity.
“Eric and I are very close,” McCarthy says. “We met each other before coming to Congress. I think our personalities work well together. Eric has taught me that you don’t just sit and say ‘no,’ you come up with your own ideas as well, to see if they’re better. For so long, I’ve watched Republicans play defense. But you don’t win a game by just playing defense: You have to play offense and solve problems.”
McCarthy also counts Boehner as a friend and mentor. Before coming to Congress, McCarthy was district director for now-retired congressman Bill Thomas, a former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In February 2006, in the wake of DeLay’s resignation as majority leader, Thomas delivered the nominating speech for Boehner as the Ohioan battled then-representative Roy Blunt of Missouri for the now-vacant position. Thanks in part to the maneuvers of Thomas, Boehner won by a 122 to 109 vote, stunning the Hill.
Thomas, who initially rejected McCarthy’s internship application two decades ago because the intern roster was filled, realized his mistake once he got to know the gregarious Cal State–Bakersfield undergrad, promptly hiring McCarthy as a volunteer, then as a full-time staffer. Thomas, who was widely regarded in the House as a sharp legislative strategist, taught McCarthy how to win in Washington — while keeping your friends. “For one, I learned how crucial it is in this job to make sure you get all of the information, to not rely on second-hand stories,” McCarthy recalls. “Two, I learned that in politics, people make decisions with or without you, so you better find a way to get a seat at that table.”
While he lives and breathes politics these days, McCarthy says that it has not always been the dominant force in his life. From a young age, he says, his ambition was to run his own business. When he was 20 years old, he got his chance after he won $5,000 in the state lottery. With the cash, he opened Kevin O’s Deli, which he owned and operated for a couple years, then sold. “It turned out quite well,” he recalls. “I eventually had enough money to pay my own way through college.” He then self-financed his way through Cal State’s MBA program.
McCarthy firmly believes that those small-business roots have influenced him as he has made his way around the marble halls of Washington. They also serve as a bond with Boehner, who worked at his family’s tavern for years. “I’ve always believed that I was an entrepreneur,” he says. “That’s why I believe in the Republican party. My family was full of Democrats, but I came to the GOP on Day One, because I believed in taking your own risk and reaping your reward. I’ve always believed in the individual, and that entrepreneurial spirit is kind of what has always driven me.”
Following his tenure in Thomas’s office, and at his boss’s urging, McCarthy decided to jump into the arena. In 2000, he was elected to the Kern County Community College District Board. Two years later, he won a seat in the state legislature, where he was quickly elected minority leader. In 2006, following Thomas’s retirement, he was elected to the U.S. House with little opposition.
If one doubts whether McCarthy will keep his cheery, future-focused persona in the House leadership, where bleary-eyed tumult is part of the job description, one need only look to how he handled the whip race last month. Already, McCarthy’s soft power has shown itself. With Boehner and Cantor having taken the top two rungs on the GOP ladder, McCarthy faced early (though unannounced) opposition for the third-ranking slot from Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the old bull and Boehner ally who chairs the NRCC.
On Election Night, the two men sat together in a windowless room in the bowels of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, making calls to GOP victors. McCarthy, fully aware of the upcoming leadership race, laughed with Sessions about stories from the campaign season, and took care to praise the Texan in his brief speech before the conference hall of Republican activists. No tension, no whispers, no tie: classic McCarthy. “I never viewed it as a race of me versus Pete,” he says. “It was an open seat, and anybody could run for it. I’m glad it worked out positively.”
Indeed, as I watched McCarthy in action — working the room, pepping up Sessions, with Boehner lingering by the door — I was struck by how easily politics comes to him. He campaigns without noticeably campaigning, networks without networking, beats you without bruising you — the velvet hammer, if anything. Two weeks after their Hyatt exchange, Sessions, without so much as a bad word, dropped out of contention.
“It’s a cheerful persistence,” McCarthy explains as we part ways. To him, being a “happy warrior,” like a certain other California Republican, is not a shtick — it’s his way of keeping things in perspective.
“Look at where we get to perform the job,” he tells me. “Sure, so far, I haven’t had a lot of victories inside of that building, but I feel so privileged to be in that building.
“Every day we’re in session, I go to the staircase between the first and second floor in the Capitol, where the chambers are,” he says. “The steps are worn out; you can feel the groove in your shoes. I walk those stairs and think about what transpired in that room long before I ever got there, and what will continue to transpire there long after I’m gone. To have that ability, and that responsibility, if even for a moment, you’ve got to be happy. You’ve got to be excited about this country, more than anything.”
For weary Republicans, long yearning for a new generation of House leaders to assert themselves, the feeling is mutual.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.