WASHINGTON — Republicans in the House of Representatives on Thursday elected Bakersfield, Calif., native Kevin McCarthy as majority leader, giving California’s Central Valley a leg up on Capitol Hill.
McCarthy’s election makes the 49-year-old former deli operator the first Californian to reach the House’s number-two position since it was created in 1899. The promotion also puts McCarthy on the spot, raising expectations about what he can deliver even as it ratifies his own remarkable rise.
“They elected a guy who’s the grandson of a cattle rancher and the son of a firefighter,” McCarthy said. “Only in America can that happen.”
Following a quick campaign, McCarthy was nominated by Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia and won election on the first round of a GOP secret ballot conducted among 233 House Republicans. He handily defeated Idaho Republican Raul Labrador, a conservative House sophomore who entered the race late.
McCarthy will replace Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who is stepping down following his primary defeat by a political novice affiliated with tea party activists.
“It’s certainly good news for the Golden State,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “On issues that are non-partisan, this could really benefit California.”
McCarthy’s ascension created an opening as House majority whip, the position he has held since 2011. On the first ballot Thursday afternoon, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., defeated Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., to capture the whip’s job. The new leaders take office July 31.
New elections will be held following the November general election.
McCarthy effectively locked up his victory early, clearing the field of higher-profile potential challengers and deploying his existing vote-counting organization.
As whip, McCarthy was number three in House leadership, and responsible for counting vote and cajoling lawmakers for them. He’s endured some high-profile losses, a reflection, in part, on increased member independence and the loss of some old-school tools. The days when a top member could earmark hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation funds for a home district, as McCarthy’s former boss Bill Thomas once did for Kern County, are gone.
“He’s occasionally broken some glass,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said of McCarthy, but “I think most people say that he’s not been an ironfisted whip.”
As majority leader, McCarthy is second only to the speaker of the House in the GOP hierarchy. His job is to set the House schedule and determine what legislation moves and under what circumstances. Some past majority leaders have likened the job to being the House’s chief executive officer.
“Now, he’ll control the agenda,” noted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif..
McCarthy will become more the public face of House Republicans, as well. He’ll be sought after by the Sunday talk shows, and have more of a say in the deals that get cut. On some California issues he could join forces with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
California’s cotton, oil and gas producers could specifically benefit, along with the Silicon Valley business leaders McCarthy has spent considerable time cultivating. Individuals and committees affiliated with Oracle, Google, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum ranked among his top ten campaign contributors in the last election cycle, records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show.
On the other hand, California’s high-speed rail program, already disfavored by House Republicans, can probably kiss future federal support goodbye. McCarthy is an adamant foe of the multi-billion-dollar project.
McCarthy’s fundraising, always strong, will almost certainly pick up. Since 2008, he has distributed more than $2.3 million to fellow Republicans through his leadership political action committee, records show. Through his individual campaign account, which held $2.9 million in reserve as of mid-May, he has made additional contributions.
This election cycle alone, he has visited 41 congressional districts, with more trips planned.
Not least, McCarthy’s new position makes him the heir apparent to replace Boehner whenever the 64-year-old Ohio native decides he’s had enough.
Labrador’s ill-fated challenge to McCarthy was premised on tea party discontent with the House Republican establishment, of which both Cantor and McCarthy are exemplars. Politically, little separates the present and future majority leader.
“There's a temptation to say, meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” suggested Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, though he acknowledged that “they have very different personalities and approaches.”
McCarthy is the more naturally affable of the two, and his personal calculations don’t always seem so blatant as Cantor’s. At the same time, colleagues uniformly describe McCarthy as having specialized, to date, in politics far more than in policy.
A graduate of California State University, Bakersfield, where he also earned an MBA, McCarthy ran a deli and a batting range before starting his political career with his 2002 election to the State Assembly. In 2006, he first won election to the House.
While McCarthy’s original district included coastal San Luis Obispo County, the present 23rd Congressional District has since been largely consolidated in Tulare and Kern counties, as well as portions of Los Angeles County. Republicans hold a 45 percent to 29 percent voter registration advantage over Democrats, making it a safe GOP seat.
But with 37 percent of the district’s residents identified as Hispanic, and with the region’s powerful farm interests putting on pressure, McCarthy could feel the heat on a party-dividing issue like immigration. Activists rally regularly at his district office, underscoring the tensions that could both stir and stifle McCarthy’s ability to translate power to achievement.
“I make one promise,” McCarthy said. “I will work every single day to make sure this conference has the courage to lead and the wisdom to listen.”
Greg Gordon and Stephanie Haven contributed to this report.