WASHINGTON — With visions of a Republican majority dancing in his head, California U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy is driving the back roads of America these days, looking for fresh faces to represent his party in 2010.
"I believe this will be a wave election," McCarthy said. "This will be a national election."
To regain control of the House of Representatives, Republicans must pick up 41 seats. If they win big in the House next year, it will be at least partly because the party put McCarthy in charge of its recruiting efforts.
It's the latest high-profile assignment for McCarthy, who serves as his party's chief deputy whip. Earlier this month, he was chosen in a poll of congressional insiders as the Republican member of Congress with the "brightest political future."
After watching his party get slaughtered in the last two elections, McCarthy is feeling optimistic about its chances of a comeback in 2010. Voters increasingly are becoming disenfranchised with the Democratic majority in Washington, he said.
Taking control "would be a very big climb," McCarthy said. However, he said, Republican chances are increasing as Democrats promote policies such as their brand of health care restructuring, going "directly against what the American people say they want."
"They're still shoving it down people's throats," said McCarthy, whose 22nd Congressional District stretches from the San Joaquin Valley to the coast, covering most of Kern and San Luis Obispo counties and northeastern Los Angeles County.
McCarthy isn't alone in predicting Republican gains, which would be expected after the election of a Democratic president.
The Cook Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan newsletter, estimates that 77 Democratic House seats could be competitive next year, compared with 26 Republican seats. Most analysts say it's not a question of whether the Republican Party will pick up seats, but of how many.
Democrats are bracing for a tough year.
"We've been saying from day one this was going to be a challenging year," said Maryland Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. " ... We told our members to fasten their seat belts and get ready from the start, and we continue to say that."
McCarthy's colleagues are happy that he's leading their recruiting effort.
California Republican U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, who served with McCarthy in the California Legislature, said McCarthy was "exactly the right person" for the job.
"He's a very capable individual," McClintock said. "And don't forget he was the Republican leader in the State Assembly and did a magnificent job, by all accounts."
Democrats, however, note that McCarthy's recruiting hasn't been without problems. In Oregon, he recruited a mayor who later was fined for unlawfully converting his campaign money to personal use.
McCarthy said he'd recruited 68 "top-tier" challengers and expected to reach 120. He said money was flowing to the party's candidates already, and that 51 Republican challengers already had more than $100,000 each in cash on hand.
McCarthy said he had no interest in recruiting state lawmakers for Congress. He said he was looking for political novices, new faces, idea generators and solution-oriented people who'd had success in their personal lives.
In August, McCarthy took a road trip to Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Tennessee. He said he also had trips planned to Louisiana, Mississippi and New York.
McCarthy said he found the embodiment of the candidate he was searching for when he met Stephen Fincher, a gospel-singing cotton farmer from Tennessee.
"They say this farmer's going to come and see me," McCarthy said. "And in Tennessee, they talk a little different than in California. I said, 'Steve, where do you live?' He said, 'I live in Frog Jump, Tennessee.' I said, 'What do you farm?' He said, 'I farm cotton.' ... I just look at this guy and said this is what America is about. He is true to his convictions, to his philosophy, and he's not going to change coming to Washington. ... This guy is my favorite."
When he goes on his recruiting trips, McCarthy said, he leaves his suits and ties behind, wearing Levi's most of the time.
"Someone will talk to you longer in Levi's, and I'm there to listen," he said. "I'm there to understand what the district is looking for and answer questions."
He suggested that people don't need to fear the guy from Washington when McCarthy comes to their town.
"I am so anti-Washington," he said. "I've only been here three years. I don't live here. I ran against this place. And I'm fighting against this place."
McCarthy is watching the political indicators closely. Two big ones came in November, he said, when voters elected Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia, two states that backed President Barack Obama in 2008.
McCarthy said that Republicans had won the governorships in those states in 1993, a year before they won control of the House, and that Democrats won them in 2005, a year before they returned to power. He's also excited about a party poll taken in the two states this year: When voters were asked whether they were sending a message to Obama about his agenda, 72 percent said yes.
McCarthy said that any Democrat who'd served five terms or more would be particularly vulnerable in 2010. Usually, he said, it's best to challenge freshmen and sophomore legislators who haven't had enough time to build up their name recognition. He predicted, however, that angry voters will take out their frustration on long-term incumbents in 2010.
"They don't see any solutions coming out of Washington," McCarthy said. "In a wave election and in a national election, where you're sending a message, it doesn't matter if you've been there. If you've been there, you're part of the problem."
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