House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California now seems poised to step into the vacancy left by the departing House Speaker John Boehner.
The anticipated promotion would make the 50-year-old Bakersfield native only the second Californian, after Nancy Pelosi, to serve as speaker of the House. It would enhance the state’s political clout, even as it puts McCarthy on the same hot seat that ultimately made Boehner jump.
“I won’t be around to vote for the next speaker,” Boehner said at a news conference Friday afternoon, but “I think Kevin McCarthy would make an excellent speaker.”
In a statement, McCarthy emphasized praise for Boehner and did not explicitly address his own intentions. Several of McCarthy’s California colleagues said Friday he had not yet asked them for their votes, though they made clear they would support him.
“Now is the time for our conference to focus on healing and unifying to face the challenges ahead and always do what is best for the American people,” McCarthy said.
We will get our work done, and we'll continue to make this country more prosperous.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in July 2015.
Fifteen years younger than Boehner, McCarthy has been the presumptive heir apparent ever since he took the No. 2 job last year. Boehner’s surprise resignation announcement Friday essentially means McCarthy’s move up could happen sooner than anyone expected when the 245 remaining House Republicans vote on the new speaker.
“I don’t think anyone would question that the majority leader, the speaker’s ally and friend, is well positioned to become the next speaker,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said in an interview, adding that “my guess is Kevin is the odds-on favorite. I think we know there will be opposition, but I think it will be token opposition.”
Tellingly, even Republican conservatives whose restiveness helped drive Boehner from office acknowledge McCarthy is the front-runner as replacement.
“I certainly think he has the inside track,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. said in an e-mail sent before Boehner’s resignation announcement.
Mulvaney helped found the House Freedom Caucus, whose 30-or-so members have stirred discontent over Boehner’s leadership. Conservatives have long complained that Boehner, an often easy-going Ohio Republican, is not confrontational enough with the White House.
The infighting has persistently stymied House GOP leadership, undercutting McCarthy’s vote-counting efforts when he served as House whip from January 2011 to August 2014, and the unresolved ideological divisions will be inherited by whoever takes over the speakership.
“It’s a tough job,” said Rep. David Valadao, a California Republican whose congressional district abuts McCarthy’s, “and I think McCarthy understands that.”
McCarthy himself voiced surprise at Boehner’s decision when it was announced at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Friday morning, saying he had just heard about it a minute or two earlier, Valadao noted.
For McCarthy, now in his fifth House term, the House speakership would mark the culmination of a political rise powered by personal skills, tactical smarts and a powerful ability to raise money.
Like other leaders, and leadership contenders, from both parties, McCarthy deploys money liberally. His leadership political action committee contributed $1.2 million to GOP candidates during the 2014 election cycle and so far has contributed an additional $510,000 this year. This is second only to Boehner.
As a top recruiter of GOP candidates and a regular visitor to other members’ congressional districts, McCarthy has also established a deep network among Republican lawmakers. Since his first House election in 2006, he’s made a habit of poring through the Almanac of American Politics to understand his colleagues and their districts.
“I would put him on the list of people who are competent to be speaker,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican who stepped down recently from the House Freedom Caucus in a disagreement over tactics.
McClintock was speaking before Boehner’s announcement; at a time, both McClintock and Nunes noted, when McCarthy was adamantly not campaigning for the speaker’s job.
That upward loyalty has differed markedly from his predecessor as majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, whose palace-intrigue maneuverings in conflict with Boehner became the stuff of Capitol Hill legend.
McCarthy, formerly House whip, stepped easily into the majority leader’s job after an obscure conservative challenger defeated Cantor in a 2014 Republican primary.
But while McCarthy’s career has accelerated as an indirect result of the maneuverings of staunch conservatives, his voting has tended more toward the establishment wing of the Republican Party.
McCarthy, for instance, opposed a farm bill amendment to eliminate the Agriculture Department’s $200 million-a-year Market Access Program, which helps fund overseas ads and marketing for the likes of the California Prune Board and the California Table Grape Commission.
Critics on the right call the politically popular program corporate welfare.
The 2013 amendment failed overwhelmingly, while still showcasing the ideological purity-versus-political pragmatism conflict that has complicated GOP leadership. Many of the conservative House Freedom Caucus members who have challenged Boehner were likewise on the opposite side from McCarthy in the MAP-cutting amendment fight.
Another California Republican, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, said he believes McCarthy will nonetheless be able to unite the caucus or at least lead it, saying “Kevin has always been very, very inclusive and very team oriented.”
The son of a firefighter, McCarthy at the age of 21 started a small deli business. As he has since described many times, he sold it to fund his education at California State University, Bakersfield.
McCarthy’s early political mentor was Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, for whom he interned before winning his first elected office as a trustee of the Kern Community College District. Thomas rose to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, an achievement his one-time acolyte now is poised to beat.