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McCarthy doubles down on denouncing Democrats and bets the House on Trump

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks at a news conference during the House Republican members’ conference in Baltimore on Thursday. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

BALTIMORE — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has set a goal no party has done in 65 years, winning back the majority just two years after losing it.

But the California Republican knows better than to over promise and under deliver. So he makes only one guarantee for the 2020 elections.

“House Republicans will gain seats,” McCarthy predicted. “We will gain seats.”

McCarthy is doubling down on the GOP’s recent strategy of denouncing Democrats and casting them as socialists who want a complete government takeover of everything from health care to straws. Rather than encourage distance from an unpopular president, McCarthy wants Republicans to stick close to President Trump — an intentional break from the previous tension that existed between the White House and his predecessor, Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), a close McCarthy friend.

McCarthy has studied the Democratic field and believes Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is the most likely 2020 nominee, something Trump has been hinting at lately, including in his remarks here to GOP lawmakers Thursday.

“Trump is going to expand the playing field. If Elizabeth Warren comes in, the playing field grows,” McCarthy said in a 40-minute interview here on the second day of the three-day GOP policy retreat. He sees Warren’s liberal positions as a chance for a presidential contest pitting “socialism vs. freedom.”

It’s a calculus with much peril. After 12 years as a leadership lieutenant, McCarthy is gambling his standing atop this caucus on the combustible Trump.

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The Democratic 40-seat gain last fall was anchored around suburban battlegrounds that despise the president. Trump’s problems with female voters have only grown worse — a Washington Post-ABC News poll found just 30 percent approving of his job performance.

Adding to that environment, 17 Republicans have already announced their intention to retire, resign or seek another office, the sort of exodus that would not happen if they believed in a quick return to the majority.

At the center of this political storm sits McCarthy, 54, who entered Congress in 2007 as the eager understudy to Ryan and Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Together, they were the self-branded “Young Guns” who promised to “change the face of the Republican Party” in a book released nine years ago Saturday.

In 2010, after a recruiting effort led by McCarthy, Republicans swept into power with tea party energy. Slowly but surely, however, they fell victim to a political environment they helped create, with Cantor, then majority leader, losing a 2014 primary to a more conservative challenger.

After tea party Republicans blocked McCarthy’s elevation, Ryan rose to speaker in 2015, only to see his legacy erased by Trump’s victory in turning the GOP away from Ryan’s vision of free trade and a more diverse coalition.

Now McCarthy is the only one left, essentially a middle-aged “gun.” Almost all his friends from those first years in Congress are gone, including several fellow Californians swept out in a backlash against Trump.

“Is this the beginning of my career? No,” McCarthy said. “But am I better suited, been tested more, learned more, then, for this moment right now? Yeah.”

This job, he said, uniquely fits his skill set. His main tasks are raising money and recruiting candidates, and he began 2019 by raising $21 million in the first quarter, believed to be the largest early haul ever by a House leader.

An early aspirant to leadership, rather than a lawmaker rising in the committee ranks, McCarthy has never been viewed as a policy wonk. But life in the minority provides no real opportunities to shape legislation anyway.

So McCarthy is back to his roots, when he served as a traveling political salesman coaxing the next generation of Republicans to run when the GOP was completely shut out of power a decade ago.

Always obsessed with metrics, he used to track how many Democrats voted for at least two of three major pieces of Obama-era legislation — the economic stimulus, a climate bill and the Affordable Care Act — to predict 2010 outcomes.

He loves random factoids. The House majority had flipped in 1994 and 2006 when former NFL players won seats, so in 2010 he recruited a former Philadelphia Eagle to run for a seat in southern New Jersey. In 2018, Democrats won as Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.), a former NFL linebacker, flipped a GOP seat outside Dallas, continuing the somewhat random trend.

Today, McCarthy knows that there are more 28-year-olds in America than any other age, and that he’s already served the same amount of time in elected leadership posts as Ryan and Cantor combined, almost nine years.

McCarthy believes Republicans start the 2020 campaign with 55 initial targets: 31 Democrats in districts that favored Trump in the 2016 election and continuing with the seats that GOP nominees won in 2012 and 2008.

Some colleagues believe that McCarthy might be their only hope for crafting a strategy to win suburban battlegrounds, with Trump at the top of the ticket focusing on culture wars.

“Kevin’s strength is knowing these districts and knowing the type of candidates it’s going to take to win these districts, and really trying to broaden the umbrella of the party while still making sure that we’re representing those Trump voters,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said.

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Stefanik emerged last November as a leading critic of leadership’s failure to advance Republican women in primaries and then fully support those who made it to the general election, reaching 25-year lows of female Republicans in the House.

She gave McCarthy good grades so far, particularly after female candidates made up a majority of the initial wave of “Young Gun” endorsements for the first time ever with the GOP campaign arm.

McCarthy’s original image of being everyone’s best friend in leadership? He wants that banished. He plans a full-force push to get diverse candidates to win the nomination, believing his positive relationship with Trump can secure endorsements over conservative ideologues in GOP primaries.

“We’re going to put the very best people on the field,” McCarthy said.

What has helped McCarthy’s standing is the lack of caucus infighting. Four years ago, members of the Freedom Caucus blocked his path to speaker, but on Thursday, the retreat kicked off with McCarthy shoulder to shoulder with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the founder of the rabble-rousing caucus.

“He’s standing next to me now instead of shooting at me,” McCarthy said.

Once they lost the majority last fall, McCarthy sought out his rival to try settle old feuds, at least temporarily. McCarthy pushed him to take the ranking Republican position on the House Oversight Committee.

“Don’t be stubborn,” he told Jordan, who accepted.

The ultimate test comes in November 2020, and McCarthy has placed his bet on Trump, hoping he draws out voters who will also pull the lever for his House candidates. He knows that a Trump victory and House GOP gains will likely keep him in power.

He is also very aware that a Trump defeat and House losses will imperil his future.

“I just believe, whatever job I’m given,” McCarthy said, “surpass expectations and there will always be more opportunity for you.”

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