WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Thursday recast their leadership, electing California’s Kevin McCarthy and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise to the second- and third-ranking positions.
In secret ballots among the 233 Republicans in the House of Representatives, McCarthy won handily as majority leader, while Scalise won election as majority whip. The results give Southern conservatives new clout near the top, show the limits of tea party power and, not least, ratify McCarthy’s 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 you get that opportunity.”
For his part, Scalise said: “We’ve got solid conservative solutions to the problems that face this country.”
A genial 49-year-old native of Bakersfield, Calif., McCarthy was an early frontrunner, driving most other candidates to drop out before the Thursday election. Making a regional point, he was nominated Thursday by a Southerner, Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia.
McCarthy’s sole challenger, conservative Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, entered the race late last week and failed to amass broad support.
McCarthy will replace Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who is stepping down early following his shocking primary defeat by a political novice affiliated with tea party activists. Cantor will serve out the remainder of his term this year as a rank-and-file member.
McCarthy’s ascension created the opening at House majority whip, the position he has held since 2011. Scalise beat Reps. Peter Roskam of Illinois and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana. The House leadership shuffle commences once Cantor steps down on July 31, when Congress breaks for its five-week summer recess. 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. The whip race was more neck and neck, as the candidates made their pitches to state delegations and individual members.
As whip, McCarthy was No. 3 in the House leadership, responsible for counting votes and cajoling lawmakers to support the leadership’s agenda. He’s endured some high-profile losses, a reflection, in part, on increased member independence and the loss of traditional tools of political persuasion, such as earmarks.
“He’s occasionally broken some glass,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., but “I think most people say that he’s not been an iron-fisted whip.”
As majority leader, McCarthy will set the House schedule, determining what legislation moves and under what circumstances. Some past majority leaders have described the job as being the House’s chief executive officer.
“Now, he’ll control the agenda,” noted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a longtime ally whose rural district abuts McCarthy’s, “and he’s got to have a close working relationship with all the committee chairmen.”
McCarthy will become more of the public face for House Republicans, as well. He’ll be sought after by the Sunday talk shows that can help shape the political environment, and he’ll get more invitations to help craft deals. His fundraising on behalf of fellow Republicans, already estimable, almost certainly will pick up.
Since 2008, McCarthy 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 to candidates and party committees.
This election cycle alone, McCarthy has visited 41 congressional districts, with more trips planned.
Not least, his new position makes him the heir apparent to replace Speaker of the House John Boehner, whenever the 64-year-old Ohioan decides he’s had enough. McCarthy’s proximity to the speakership, though ascension is not guaranteed, only adds to the aura of power that, in turn, can translate to power.
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 current 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.”
Cantor wore his ambition on his sleeve. Whether fairly or not, he and his staff were regularly cast in Capitol Hill narratives as maneuvering for advantage against Boehner. It was Cantor, for instance, who helped undermine a potential budget deal sought by Boehner and President Barack Obama.
McCarthy is the more naturally genial of the two, and his personal calculations don’t always seem so obvious. At the same time, colleagues uniformly describe McCarthy as having specialized, to date, in politics more than in policy.
A graduate of California State University, Bakersfield, where he also earned a master’s of business administration, 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.
Greg Gordon of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.