With Eric Cantor ousted from office in a surprise upset last week, House Republicans raced to elect a new Majority Leader.
Spectators both inside the beltway and around America watched the vote with interest, a contest which came down to Tea Party choice Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and current GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Cali.).
Confession from this Tea Partier: my money was firmly on McCarthy.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif., arrives for GOP leadership elections, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 19, 2014. House Republicans elected McCarthy as majority leader, party's No. 2 post. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
While the media was abuzz about underdog Labrador, it is McCarthy who is a true pit bull and as the current GOP Whip, he knows how to garner votes -- a skill that counts for everything in a caucus vote like this.
Now that he is Majority Leader and the second most powerful man in the House, a lot of folks will be asking, "Who exactly is Kevin McCarthy?"
My colleagues and I have experience working under McCarthy's leadership long before the rest of the nation knew him -- back when he was the Statehouse Republican Leader in the California Legislature. To fully understand Kevin McCarthy, you must first understand where he has been.
After winning a few thousand dollars in the lottery in California before the age of 21, McCarthy opened a sandwich shop called Kevin O's Deli. In a nod to his roots, that "O" is still prominent in his identity today, represented by the "O" in his official Twitter account @KevinOMcCarthy.
In Bakersfield, as a small business owner he quickly became interested in politics and set out to learn from the incumbent Congressman how the game was played -- and boy, did he. McCarthy ran for the State house and at the age of 38, the freshman legislator from a rural area of California unanimously, without a single detracting vote, became the GOP Assembly Leader of the California State Legislature in the bluest State in the nation.
Machiavellian in nature, McCarthy has charted his course carefully. At a dive bar called Simon's just a block from the State Capitol in Sacramento, his advisers informed me and several others as early as 2005 that he intended to run for Congress, then would eye a run for President of the United States in the year 2020.
It seemed like a stretch at the time, a state legislator running for president. But with talk of 2016 already upon us (thank you, Hillary) and with McCarthy sliding into the number two position in the House, that suggestion doesn't seem so impossible now. In fact, having seen McCarthy work over the last decade it seems entirely plausible.
In 2003 as the new Republican leader in the California State Assembly, McCarthy joined forces with another fresh face on the scene: a new governor by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The political popularity of a Hollywood movie star allowed McCarthy as GOP leader to walk the hallways softly but carry a big stick -- a stick he would occasionally poke in the eye of his Democrat colleagues. Together, the Schwarzenegger-McCarthy duo immediately got to work making Democrat leaders' lives miserable.
As a powerful member of "The Big Five" -- a group consisting of both the Democrat and Republican State house and state senate leaders along with Gov. Schwarzenegger -- McCarthy began tackling the state's perennial budget crisis, electricity crisis and workers' compensation crisis that was left behind by recalled democrat Gov. Gray Davis.
He understood the importance of messaging in winning political victories -- so much so that in 2005, McCarthy flew in messaging guru and pollster Frank Luntz from D.C. to train those of us who served as communications directors in his caucus. By the end of his tenure as Republican leader, California Democrats had such a healthy respect for McCarthy that they nearly threw him a going-away party when he announced that rather than ascending to a state senate seat as most lower-house legislators would, McCarthy instead announced he was running for Congress.
Democrats were thrilled they wouldn't have to contend with him anymore, at least on the state level.
Now, McCarthy is without question the hardest-working member in D.C. Shortly after being elected to Congress in 2006, he co-founded the Young Guns program for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) to recruit fresh faces to the Republican Party and in addition to his day job, he began traveling the country.
Today, it's not unusual to bump into McCarthy criss-crossing the country: stumping for Mitt Romney in the final month of 2012 in Nevada, or serving as the keynote speaker at an Arapahoe County Lincoln Day Dinner in the battleground state of Colorado in the middle of summer during an off-election year -- both were times I've bumped into the Majority Whip in the last 18 months while working in swing states.
McCarthy is also charming. Like me, you may disagree with his more moderate brand of Republicanism but as with former President Bill Clinton, you can't help but get caught up in conversation with him when you're in the same room with the guy. He has a way of disagreeing with you that is not disagreeable, which just might be a refreshing trait in Washington these days.
While many this week are saying, "Meet the new boss, same as the old one," that doesn't necessarily ring true with McCarthy. It is true that McCarthy is no better than Eric Cantor on immigration -- in fact, his stances may be worse than Cantor's given his coziness with big oil and big business which are hungry for cheap labor -- however, he's also no John Boehner, either, and thank God for that.
McCarthy will actually "go to the mattresses" as they say in the "Godfather"; he will take on the Democrats in Congress. If I were democrats Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz today, I'd be sharpening my tactics to do battle with this young up-and-coming leader because he has the skills to outfox them at every turn. I've witnessed it firsthand.
Don't be surprised that McCarthy won Majority Leader. And don't be surprised, either, when you begin hearing that talk about McCarthy as a presidential contender for 2020. McCarthy won't be surprised.
After all, the man after whom Kevin Spacey modeled his character in "House of Cards," McCarthy planned it precisely this way -- charting this course for himself more than a decade ago in California. Not too shabby for a rural hometown boy who won the lottery and opened a sandwich shop in Bakersfield, California. He's played his cards well.
Jennifer Kerns has served as spokeswoman for the California Republican Party, twice as an Appointee of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and as Spokeswoman for California's Prop. 8 which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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