Rep. Kevin McCarthy uses networking skills to emerge as Eric Cantor’s likely successor

When Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was 19, he won $5,000 in the California lottery. Here are three other facts you probably didn't know about the frontrunner for House majority leader. (Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

In a short 48 hours, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) went from being an overlooked figure on a hobbled leadership team to the overwhelming front-runner in a race that could make him the fastest riser to the majority leader’s post in congressional history.

By Thursday, McCarthy, 49, appeared to have consolidated ranks in almost every corner of the House GOP caucus and seemed well positioned to win next week’s snap election to succeed Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — who lost his primary Tuesday — as majority leader.

A win by McCarthy, in just his fourth term, would complete a remarkable transformation for the affable Californian, who just a year ago was dogged by criticism that he wasn’t tough enough to persuade recalcitrant GOP lawmakers to vote with the leadership on critically important issues. He also faced questions about whether his policy chops were substantive enough for the job.

In the face of those difficulties, McCarthy went to work: He continued building personal relationships within the sprawling 233-member Republican Conference, deploying every networking tool at his disposal — small dinners, workouts in the House gym, long bike rides up the C&O Canal towpath. Almost no lawmaker was left unattended, including those who had been cast aside by past leaders.

“He’s a savant of relationships,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), a former member of leadership in the Arizona state legislature. “He’s better at it than almost anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Schweikert has his reasons to spurn McCarthy’s entreaties, beginning with the whip’s decision after the 2012 elections to remove Schweikert and three others from their top committee assignments for actions perceived as disloyal.

But McCarthy reached out to the Arizonan last year over their shared interest in the existence of an unusual desert fungi in their respective districts. The fungi cause an obscure sickness, and McCarthy invited Schweikert to his district when federal health officials conducted a seminar there on the topic. Schweikert then returned the favor and brought McCarthy to his district, and now Schweikert is considering voting for the man who exiled him from his top committee spot for majority leader.

It is relationships like these that explain McCarthy’s popularity among his colleagues and demonstrate some of the important functional changes that have taken hold in Congress in recent years.

Overwhelming personal or political power is no longer one of the attributes of congressional leadership and, for the most part, no longer exists on Capitol Hill. More often, success and results depend on personal persuasion, and that starts with relationships.

McCarthy was considered to be comfortably ahead of Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) — who was the only other announced competitor for the majority leader’s job before he dropped out of consideration Thursday night. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said Thursday night that he is considering a run and hopes to make a decision Friday.

First elected in 2006, McCarthy would be second in rank to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and well situated to claim the gavel himself one day. A one-time deli owner who rails against government regulation but shies away from the culture-war issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and guns, McCarthy is a fairly typical business conservative.

He learned the machinations of Congress working for then-Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the irascible chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. McCarthy replaced Thomas in 2007 and immediately projected a reverse image — where Thomas was a policy wonk who would browbeat friend and foe alike, McCarthy was a charmer who focused on the insider-politics of the Capitol.

After announcing his resignation as House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he would support current House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) if he chooses to run for leader. (Associated Press)

He and Cantor, along with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), began recruiting other youthful Republicans under the banner of “the Young Guns,” hoping to infuse more energy into their ranks during their days in the minority. The other two received most of the attention, with Cantor gaining the No. 2 spot behind Boehner and the potential of someday grabbing the speaker’s gavel, while Ryan became his party’s leading policy spokesman and its 2012 vice presidential nominee.

If they were a rock band power trio, Ryan and Cantor were the front men getting most of the attention while McCarthy was the drummer in the background — well liked, doing hard work, but a bit out of focus on the magazine cover.

He focused on big ideas, not necessarily all the details, and led the writing of the 2010 “Pledge to America,” the House GOP’s campaign platform.

But his strength has always been his network. That year he met a young prosecutor who had once been on an MTV reality show, Sean Duffy, and coaxed him to run against a 41-year veteran Wisconsin Democrat. They gamed out situations, including a joint idea to buy a 1969 car and drive it around the district to symbolize the incumbent’s tenure.

Duffy, 42, won and has been a fan of McCarthy’s ever since.

When Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) arrived in 2009, he felt alone. “You get here and don’t know anyone, and it’s kind of like high school: What cliques do you gravitate to?” Rooney, 43, explained. He doesn’t remember how, but there McCarthy was, befriending him.

McCarthy became majority whip in 2011 when Republicans took control of the House, making him the top vote-counter. In years past, dominant figures such as Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) held the post, using power politics to advance their party’s agenda.

The old tools were not available to the new whip. There were no special earmarks for spending projects in districts. And there was now a new breed of conservative groups functioning outside the Capitol as political enforcers eager to challenge those who did not toe the austerity line.

There were plenty of stumbles in the first three years, including collapsed support for Boehner-led fiscal proposals in 2011 and 2012. Both failures led to compromises forged with large Democratic support.

The nadir came a year ago when GOP leaders lost a floor vote on the farm bill, amid a conservative revolt and Democrats’ backing away after the measure was amended to include controversial provisions for food stamps.

Some Republicans pointed fingers at someone in a first-floor office (McCarthy) at the Capitol, while some blamed the third floor (Cantor) and others lashed out at the second floor (Boehner).

As the vote counter, McCarthy faced the most scrutiny. Republican strategists wondered whether he would be challenged for his leadership spot. Then the government shutdown occurred, with disastrous consequences to the GOP’s public approval numbers. But the shutdown was the result of a mutiny by a large number of the most junior Republicans, in defiance of the leadership’s guidance.

Since then, a vast majority of Republicans have been supportive of leadership positions, from a budget compromise Ryan engineered to passing a final version of the farm bill that had collapsed last summer.

All along, McCarthy never stopped working the room. An early practitioner of the P90X workout regimen, he once spent every morning working out with colleagues. Nowadays, his favored move is long bike rides with lawmakers through Rock Creek Park and along the C&O Canal, with his Capitol Police security detail pedaling alongside.

Loyalty is considered a high virtue, and when one junior lawmaker was working against McCarthy’s interests, he tossed him off the team of deputy whips. Afterward, Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) became a thorn in leadership’s side, crafting the health-care amendment that conservatives demanded as their only way to keep the government open.

In the months ahead, McCarthy slowly but surely started again talking to Graves, who in the past six months has voted with McCarthy on the biggest votes.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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