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By Evan Halper and Richard Simon, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — California and Texas bicker over so many things — who has the better scenery, the better jobs, the better quality of life.

Now, the quarrel between the most and second-most populous states is shifting to a bare-knuckle battle over who can claim the more powerful Republican congressman.

After a titanic Tea Party upheaval in Virginia cost House Majority Leader Eric Cantor his seat, the emerging front-runners to replace him Wednesday were House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, a California native, and Pete Sessions, out of Waco, Texas.

Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee, is a longtime ally of the Texas political establishment. McCarthy made his mark as a foil to the Democrats who dominate California. He is among those who argue Sacramento should restructure its state government to look more like the one in Austin, Texas.

McCarthy rails against endangered species protections. He crusades against California’s high-speed rail project. He helped inspire the budget brinkmanship that forced a partial shutdown of the federal government for 16 days last fall, closing national parks, delaying oil drilling permits and furloughing 850,000 workers.

McCarthy hasn’t said yet whether he will run, although Cantor all but endorsed him Wednesday, telling reporters that McCarthy would be an outstanding House majority leader, a position second only to the House speaker.

The challenge for McCarthy, assuming he runs, will be proving he is conservative enough for the rebels in his party. Sessions charged out of the gate Wednesday, declaring his rival is not.

Asked his strengths over McCarthy, Sessions called himself a “well-known conservative” who will push for an agenda “that is conservative, that is pro-business and solves the problems of the country.”

Many in the Tea Party are not thrilled with either one, however. They are pushing another Texan, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, to run. Hensarling, who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, indicated he was mulling it over. [Editor’s note: Hensarling announced on Thursday that he will not run.]

If McCarthy runs and wins, he will leave a potential opening in the whip slot for Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, who now ranks fourth in his party’s leadership and was recently appointed to a new House committee that will examine the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, attacks.

Whether the Tea Partiers will endorse Roskam, or rally around an expected challenger from a reliably red state, is far from clear.

McCarthy’s district includes most of Bakersfield, as well as most of the Antelope Valley. First elected in 2006, he quickly rose in the ranks and was selected by his colleagues as majority whip in 2010, catapulting him to a position of prominence in the GOP.

He is a prodigious fundraiser, widely praised by colleagues for helping their campaigns and for presiding as a kind of informal social director. He hosts movie nights, bike rides around Washington and other bonding opportunities for his caucus.

“Kevin starts out as the front-runner,” said Kurt Bardella, a Republican strategist and former House aide. “Kevin is all about coalition building and building personal relationships with members of his caucus.”

Inside the GOP, however, being from Texas is tough to beat.

“We’ve had these fights between California and Texas before,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who is rooting for McCarthy. “California used to have the leverage, and I think that Texas has the leverage now.”

Adding to the Californian’s challenge, the Republican caucus is restless. Some conservatives hope to leverage Cantor’s defeat into a broader purge of GOP leadership altogether.

“We’ve got to change the entire leadership team,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a Tea Partier. “This has probably emboldened a lot of folks who didn’t think it was possible.”

Potential contenders frantically shifted their strategies as events unfolded and rumors spread Wednesday. Cantor’s replacement will be chosen next week, meaning the campaign to succeed him will be short and intense.

McCarthy is a longtime ally of Cantor’s. Much of the work they did together, ironically, was in pursuit of helping elect the type of conservative lawmakers who now label them sellouts.

McCarthy has amassed nearly $3 million in his campaign war chest. He is likely to share it with colleagues facing tough races this fall, helping him lock up votes for his own race as majority leader.

In recent years, California had its greatest clout in Congress when Democrat Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, was speaker from 2007 to 2011, the only woman ever to serve in the post.

McCarthy sits opposite Pelosi on the political spectrum, and his likely effect on the state would be very different.

His signature issues include easing environmental rules that limit use of water by Central California farmers. He is also a close ally of the oil and gas industry, and pushes for policies that preserve its ability to conduct hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in California.

An infusion of federal spending to California would be unlikely.

McCarthy would be under pressure from party activists to cut the budget, not increase it. And he would represent a party that shows considerable disdain for a large liberal state with some of the country’s most generous government programs.

Photo: House GOP via Flickr

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