The job was pretty much his. When House Speaker John A. Boehner abruptly decided to resign in October 2015, the obvious choice to replace him was his No. 2, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Then the TV cameras flipped on and McCarthy said something he almost certainly still wishes he hadn't. McCarthy (R-Calif.) was on Fox News trying to assure Sean Hannity that as speaker he wouldn't diminish conservative priorities. And to prove his point, McCarthy said this:
Let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's un-trustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.
A couple of things McCarthy said there were true. At the time, Clinton's poll numbers in the presidential race were dropping and Republicans were aggressively pursuing an investigation into the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans while Clinton was secretary of state.
Republicans had set up a special committee dedicated entirely to investigating the attacks during the election year. (Something they haven't done with Russian interference in the 2016 election.)
Democrats had already accused Republicans of using taxpayer funds to try to take down their top presidential contender. And McCarthy just handed them the closest thing to proof when he publicly tied the Benghazi committee to Clinton's poll numbers.
On the Republican side of the aisle, McCarthy's comment reinforced two concerns about his readiness to be speaker: Even though he had been in leadership for four years at the time, he was relatively inexperienced for the spotlight and prone to gaffes.
He took particular heat from conservatives who were already wary of McCarthy's moderation over the years toward the ideological middle. It didn't help that many top conservatives were serving on the Benghazi committee.
“I think he should apologize,” said then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a conservative who briefly considered a run for speaker.
Shortly after that, McCarthy surprised everyone by dropping out of the speaker race. His stated reason was that Republicans needed someone new, “a fresh face” to unify a fractious Republican conference. Enter Paul D. Ryan.
But McCarthy's Clinton-Benghazi comments hung in the air. So did a mysterious letter from Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) calling for any leadership candidate who had committed “misdeeds since joining Congress that will embarrass himself ... if they become public” to drop out of the speaker race, referencing past speakers “with skeletons in their closets.” (Jones, a moderate, said at the time his letter wasn't specifically directed at McCarthy.)
Suffice it to say that for a variety of reasons, McCarthy's star imploded pretty quickly in 2015. The prevailing wisdom was that he just wasn't ready for prime time.
But now that the speaker job is open again, he's again the presumed front-runner. Has something changed between now and then to make House Republicans more amenable to a speaker candidate that some of them rejected three years ago?
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who serves with McCarthy in leadership, says McCarthy has grown as a leader while the House Republican Conference has grown a little less unruly.
“I think he's been a brilliant majority leader,” Cole said. “He's more proficient, more professional, and he helped create a team atmosphere among the leadership that we really didn't have before.”
McCarthy, Cole said, has also grown as a spokesman. “He's much better in the media than he was before,” Cole said. “He's much more thoughtful, much better informed.” (Likely translation: He hasn't made a Benghazi-like gaffe since.)
And McCarthy has one ace in his pocket that he didn't have in 2015: He's close with the president. In fact, McCarthy is probably the House Republican closest to President Trump. And he's savvy about managing the relationship. In October, McCarthy gave Trump a jar of Starbursts with only the red and pink ones, the president's favorite.
“That's really smart,” GOP strategist Doug Heye said. It's the kind of move that has allowed McCarthy to cozy up to a president who is, Heye says, “REALLY popular” among Republican voters — and the GOP lawmakers who represent them.
Today, McCarthy can reasonably argue that a vote for him is another way to show your support back home for Trump. His argument gets much stronger if Trump ends up endorsing McCarthy, which is entirely possible.
McCarthy isn't out of the woods, yet.
The cameras are flipped on again and pointed at him, and they'll be there for a while. As The Washington Post's Paul Kane recently pointed out, McCarthy's first doomed campaign for speaker lasted 13 days. This one is slated to last seven months, since Ryan (R-Wis.) isn't leaving until the end of the year. That means reporters will have plenty of time to comb through McCarthy's record and possibly find things that some of his skeptical Republican colleagues may not like.
Already, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leading conservative of the far-right Freedom Caucus, is considering challenging McCarthy for the job.
But the prevailing wisdom among House Republicans is that things are just different for McCarthy this time — as long as he can avoid any major political gaffes. Six days in, some seven months to go.