Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) became the frontrunner to replace friend and mentor John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House of Representatives, when the latter announced his retirement from the position, effective Oct. 30. Boehner had a contentious run as Speaker, trying both to placate various factions of the Republican caucus and get the House to function as a government body.
McCarthy, who would be the least experienced of all Speakers save for George Frederick Crisp in 1891, has had a meteoric rise in politics. Starting as an aide to Rep. Bill Thomas, his local congressman, he rose quickly through the Republican ranks in California and then nationally, becoming a state senator in 2002 before entering Congress in 2007. According to the Washington Post, he has never won with less than 70 percent of the vote – even after his district was subsequently altered in 2012. In 2011 he was elected Majority Whip, the third highest position in the House, and then quickly climbed another notch to Majority Leader last year.
While McCarthy clearly has the right connections in Congress, he isn’t quite a household name yet. Here’s a primer on how he got to be the likely successor to Boehner.
1. Winning the lottery changed his life.
At 19, as a student at the University of California, Bakersfield, he bought a lottery ticket and wound up $5,000 richer. After making a little money in the stock market with the winnings, he opened a deli; as a small business owner, he was suddenly thrust into the world of regulations and taxes – and didn’t like any of it. So McCarthy, the son of Democrats, registered as a Republican, became active in Young Republican circles, and got his MBA in marketing.
2. He’s not very committed on issues or ideology.
McCarthy isn’t known for his strong stances – or any stances at all. His ascent was not the result of strongarming legislators to sign or vote for bills he backed, or for his talking points or persuasive speeches — it was mainly due to his fundraising prowess.
So what does he stand for?
Most of his sponsored legislation has focused around agriculture and food. His Bakersfield district is located in the fourth largest agricultural county in the country, and its economic base is largely energy companies and farms. Agribusiness, along with oil and gas firms, are among the top donors to his campaign war chest.
His most important feature as a politician, to judge from his letter to his House colleagues and numerous interviews and statements, is just to be an effective leader and listen to his co-workers and constituents. His “listening sessions” are credited with the voting success of the Ryan budget plan in 2011, and he is known for his dexterity at building consensus – a skill Boehner apparently lacks.
3. He’s a master fundraiser.
He doesn’t seem to have much of a home life. McCarthy spends the bulk of his time either in his Washington office (he sleeps there) or crisscrossing the country trying to raise money. His early-morning gym sessions with fellow “Young Guns” Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor (so named because they were young Republicans out to change the party) aren’t just about “extreme home fitness” – they’re a way to build relationships and strategic allies in the party. According to the Los Angeles Times, he wowed prospective donors with algorithms that could predict weaknesses in the opposition and spotlight little-known potential candidates in faraway districts.
He’s a friend to the Tea Party and traditional Republicans alike, although those groups tend to despise each other. He’s not an ideologue, he’s a pragmatist.
As he’s moved up in the world, so has his spending. From cheap rental cars on country roads to private jets, McCarthy spends money to make money, telling a fundraising group that in the month before the 2014 election, he visited 100 districts. He also arranges “destination fundraisers,” mainly attended by corporate lobbyists, which are less about discussing policy than hobnobbing with powerful lawmakers and their families.
4. He thought about running for lieutenant governor of California.
He filed a statement of intent with the state last year, but never filed to appear on the ballot in time for the primary election. He doesn’t believe that anyone should become president unless they’ve served as governor first, telling Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown in 2013: “A governor picks a cabinet, has to work with both sides, can’t print money, has to have a balanced budget. The challenge in Washington is the ability to work together.”
5. Kevin Spacey shadowed him to prepare for the role of Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
Minus the murdering psychopathic tendencies of Underwood (which, by all accounts, McCarthy does not possess), the fictional Democratic Majority Whip’s office was modeled after McCarthy’s office. The actor told ABC News that it’s extremely difficult to get 218 members of Congress to fall in line on behalf of any particular agenda.
“I don’t envy him the position. It’s not easy,” Spacey said. “But it was very — for me — fascinating to go to a couple of whip meetings and actually see what the agenda is, what they’re going to put out there, how they do it.”
McCarthy’s philosophy – “I’d tell the members vote your conscience, vote your district, just don’t surprise me, because people come here, they should represent their district, they should represent their philosophies” – should be familiar to House of Cards fans: Frank Underwood repeated that line (albeit menacingly) in the show’s first season.
McCarthy only agreed to speak to Spacey after hearing that the character was a Democrat, purportedly because he knew that the character would be portrayed as “too Hollywood.” Apparently the party affiliation made a big difference to him.
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