WASHINGTON -- On Monday, Roll Call named California's Kevin McCarthy the House's rookie of the year.
Earlier this month, the Bakersfield Republican became the chief deputy whip for the House GOP, rising to the No. 3 position. And as one of his party's top leaders, he's getting ready to move into a big office in the Capitol.
Not bad for a freshman.
House Republicans may be battered and weakened after losing 50 seats in the last two elections, but McCarthy's political fortunes are clearly on the upswing.
Writing in Newsweek last month, Karl Rove, President Bush's former top political adviser, called McCarthy one of the GOP's "most persuasive compelling members." And in a speech at the National Press Club on the day after the election, Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan named McCarthy one of the party's eight "young, experienced, dynamic leaders," mentioning him in the same breath as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Jindal, often mentioned as a GOP presidential candidate in 2012, praised McCarthy, too, saying he will "provide Congress with the next generation of leadership it needs."
McCarthy, 43, is accustomed to quick climbs up the ladder. After getting elected to represent a heavily Republican district in the California legislature in 2002, he became the first freshman to win the post of Republican Assembly leader. And in his first term in Washington, his colleagues appointed him as their point man in crafting the Republican platform at this year's national convention in St. Paul, Minn.
In an interview, McCarthy jokingly attributed it all to the "luck of the Irish." As a new leader, he said he's eager to set aside partisanship and work with a new Democratic president in 2009.
"I look at the cup half full," he said. "I look at a great opportunity." He said "timing is everything in politics," and that with the Republicans losing so many seats, more people are getting an opportunity to serve.
McCarthy, who's married and has two children, is a fourth-generation resident of Kern County. Before entering politics, he ran several small businesses. He opened his first business -- a deli -- before his 21st birthday, using the money to go California State University in Bakersfield. And as a state legislator, he focused on business policies, working closely with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He's not your typical freshman. From 1990 to 2001, he served as chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. And before serving two terms in the California Assembly, he worked as district director for former Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, who headed the House Ways and Means Committee. When he came to Washington last year, McCarthy joined the House as part of a Republican class of 13, the smallest since 1914.
Of the 5,644 votes cast for rookie of the year by Washington insiders in the Roll Call poll, McCarthy received 37 percent, defeating Democratic Reps. Paul Hodes of New Hampshire and Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, who received 15 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
Rove, in his Newsweek piece, pointed to McCarthy and nine other Republicans as leaders who can steer the party "out of the wilderness" and who should be put on the GOP's center stage.
"For now, our party's face is our congressional leadership," Rove said. "In the coming year, their response to the Democratic agenda will largely determine the speed of the party's recovery."
Duncan cited McCarthy as part of the GOP's "great and deep bench." He said Republican candidates suffered from the weight of the economy and an unpopular war this year but that in 2010 the party should fare better. He noted that the last time Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, "they choked on the bone of responsibility," lurched to the left and paved the way for Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.
"Should they make the same mistakes again, the Republican Party today is blessed as never before with young, experienced, dynamic leaders who are ready to step up and step in," said Duncan.
House Republicans may have lost 30 seats in 2006 and another 20 this year, but McCarthy is optimistic. He said he believes the Democratic leadership will be much further to the left than rank-and-file Democrats and that Republicans will have a big opportunity to pick up seats in 2010, with many Democrats now representing Republican-leaning districts that will be harder for them to defend.
But he said he gives much credit to President-elect Barack Obama, calling him "sharp," and he said he hopes the new president will work with Republicans. More than anything, he said, Americans want Washington to start governing and let politics rest for a while.
"I'll be the first to want to reach my hand out to him and want to work with him," McCarthy said, adding that House Republicans still will be ready to keep Democrats "in check," especially if they seek to raise taxes.
As chief deputy whip, McCarthy will attend daily leadership meetings with Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, putting him in the middle of the action. And he's eager to make the big move from the Longworth House Office Building, across the street from the Capitol, into the Capitol itself.
He likes the marble there.
"I get goose bumps every time I walk in," he said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008