Speaker-in-waiting spent years cultivating GOP lawmakers

AP News
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Posted: Oct 08, 2015 3:50 AM
Speaker-in-waiting spent years cultivating GOP lawmakers

WASHINGTON (AP) — If House Republicans had a yearbook, Kevin McCarthy might be their Mr. Congeniality.

If the silver-haired Californian hasn't invited one of his 246 fellow House Republicans out for a movie night, he's probably hung the member's photo on his office wall. Or shared a morning bike ride or an evening pizza. Or posted a shout-out on his busy Instagram account.

Or, most important, just heard them out.

McCarthy, the majority leader who's favored to become the next speaker of the House, has energetically nurtured GOP legislators in the House since he was elected to Congress nine years ago. He recruited many of the young conservatives who helped the Republicans retake control of the House in the 2010 elections. They owe him a lot.

All of which instantly made McCarthy the odds-on favorite to succeed John Boehner, who decided to step down as a revolt rumbled on the party's right.

But all of which will count for not much if McCarthy can't find a way to balance the competing demands in the Republican-controlled House. Restive conservatives are seeking a more aggressive stance against President Barack Obama, while others feel a pragmatic need for compromise to get things done in the era of oh-so-divided government.

Some conservatives are openly questioning the wisdom of ousting one speaker only to promote his top deputy.

And Democrats, for their part, are questioning whether McCarthy will have any better luck than Boehner satisfying the demands of those on the hard right.

Loyalty will get you only so far in this town.

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McCarthy promises to establish a new culture as speaker, with a "bottom-up" leadership style.

"This is a generational change," he says. "You're going to find that I'm going to listen to every voice."

But his big flub in one of his first interviews after becoming a candidate for speaker only served to make conservatives more nervous about whether he can take them to the Promised Land.

In an appearance on Fox News, McCarthy credited the House Benghazi committee with causing Hillary Rodham Clinton's poll numbers to drop. That instantly undercut GOP claims that the inquiry is not politically motivated.

Within days, McCarthy's comments had been turned into a Clinton campaign ad, the majority leader was furiously backpedaling and the speaker's race had attracted a new challenger.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, in joining the race, called McCarthy "one of the most beloved members" of the Republican caucus — and the wrong person to lead it.

"We need a speaker who speaks," said Chaffetz in a none-too-subtle swipe at McCarthy's communication shortcomings and verbal stumbles.

Democrats could barely stifle their grins about McCarthy's Benghazi bungle.

"Leader McCarthy has committed the classic Washington gaffe of saying something that everybody already knows is true," chortled White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

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McCarthy, 50, would be the least-experienced speaker since 1891 if he's nominated in Thursday's secret ballot of the GOP caucus and elected on a subsequent open vote of the full House on Oct. 29.

In some ways, he's had a charmed life. He got a lucky break early on with a winning lottery ticket, and has hit the jackpot more than once since then by being in the right place at the right time for a surprisingly quick climb up the leadership ladder.

McCarthy took $5,000 in winnings from a scratch-off lottery ticket, invested it in stocks, and at 21 used the money to open Kevin O's Deli in his hometown of Bakersfield, California.

He still posts #tbt Instagram photos of the sandwich shop — and his early attempts at a mustache — as evidence of his entrepreneurial spirit and devotion to small business. The son of two Democrats, his father a firefighter, McCarthy often cites his battle with regulators over the size of a sign for the deli as one reason he was drawn to the small-government message of the Republican Party.

McCarthy turned his deli profits into college tuition and an MBA at California State University-Bakersfield, and married his high school sweetheart. By age 22, he was working for Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, whom he would replace in Congress two decades later. He got the job by offering to work for free after his application for a paid internship was rejected.

Thomas remembers McCarthy as likable from the beginning, hard-working and always one to follow through on commitments.

"He's the same as he was then," says Thomas, "just a fish that's growing in a bigger pond now."

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McCarthy has turned his office, with its powerful, over-sized Steve Penley paintings of Lincoln, Washington crossing the Delaware and Ronald Reagan, into a clubhouse of sorts for House Republicans.

There are formal "listening sessions" where legislators can delve into big topics like the budget or the debt limit and feel like their views are heard.

Get-togethers with fellow Republicans may start with a favorite McCarthy icebreaker: What was your first concert? (Johnny Cash for McCarthy.)

Candid photos of GOP legislators hang on the walls — rotated to give everyone exposure.

There are also informal pizza dinners and plenty of phone calls just to touch base.

"Kevin does really well because he has a big ear," says Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman from California. "He listens very carefully, and he knows what you want before you know what you want."

Ask friends or colleagues about McCarthy's hobbies and they draw a blank.

"He's never not working," says Erica Elliott, his former communications director. "He likes to organize movie nights for members. That's what Kevin McCarthy does in his free time."

McCarthy heads to California most weekends, but when his wife, Judy, and their two grown children are in D.C., Elliott says, "he integrates his family into his work, which clearly is a very welcome thing."

When political networking ends for the night, McCarthy doesn't go far: He unfurls a sheet and beds down on his office couch. (He styles that as part of his effort not to become a creature of Washington.)

Come morning, McCarthy heads for the House gym at 7 a.m. and is right back at it — he includes GOP caucus members in his morning workout.

It says something about McCarthy's outreach that both conservative Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina and moderate Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania mention in interviews how McCarthy will belt out a greeting and call them "Sunshine."

McCarthy also has opened channels with Democrats: He's biked with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. Vice President Joe Biden sees him as a straight-forward leader who "always says what he does," according to the vice president's office. And McCarthy and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan became texting buddies after meeting on the stand at Obama's second inauguration, according to Elliott.

That's also where Beyonce and Jay-Z asked McCarthy to take a photo of them that briefly turned into an Internet sensation.

Politics aside, if McCarthy has a guilty pleasure, it's keeping up with the latest celebrity news on HuffPost Entertainment and in the Daily Mail's online gossip column nicknamed the "sidebar of shame."

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McCarthy, whose politics fit his Central Valley district, is known as a solid conservative, but not necessarily a policy guy.

When he and fellow Republican Reps. Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor teamed up in 2007 as leaders of a new generation of Republican "Young Guns," Cantor was thought of as the leader, Ryan as the thinker and McCarthy as "the strategist."

"He thinks more about political strategy than any human being I've ever met," says Steel. "Every event that he does is political. That's where he gets his sustenance. That's where he gets his rest and refuge."

McCarthy takes a data-driven "Moneyball approach" to politics, says Elliott, digging deeply into political data to determine which congressional districts Republicans should target and what messages and candidates will have appeal.

When he's on a plane, which happens a lot, he may well be studying the Almanac of American Politics or getting granular with other political research.

By 2002, when he was 37, McCarthy had gotten himself elected to the California General Assembly, where he became the first freshman to serve as Republican leader. And when Thomas decided to retire from Congress in 2006, McCarthy moved up and soon snagged a congressional leadership post. He rose to House majority whip by 2011.

McCarthy took another quick step up to majority leader when Cantor was unexpectedly defeated in a GOP primary in 2014. And a little more than a year later, Boehner's surprise exit has opened a path for McCarthy to reach for the top GOP leadership slot.

There are plenty of voices warning of difficult days ahead for the next speaker.

The same people who took down John Boehner "will try to frag the next guy," says Dent.

For McCarthy, though, political battle can be invigorating.

"He likes the thrill of the hunt," says Dent. "The hunt is every bit as important — or more important — than the prize."

When McCarthy was GOP whip, "House of Cards" actor Kevin Spacey shadowed him to research fictional character Frank Underwood's devious role as Democratic majority whip.

The two became friends, but McCarthy says "House of Cards" is a far cry from the real Washington.

"He literally murders one member," McCarthy once said of Underwood. "If I could murder one member, I'd never have to worry about another vote."

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AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac