In 2004, Fabian Núñez, then the Democratic speaker of the California State Assembly, received an odd phone call. It was the assembly’s sergeant at arms, reporting that Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader, was sitting at the speaker’s dais in an otherwise empty chamber. “Kevin McCarthy looks like he’s presiding, but there’s nobody in there,” the sergeant at arms told Núñez. Despite their political differences, Núñez and McCarthy were friends; both had been elected to the assembly in 2002 and had swiftly risen to the top posts in their respective conferences. McCarthy would later tell Núñez that he had been in Sacramento fund-raising and decided to drop by the Capitol and give the speaker’s chair a test drive—just to see what it was going to feel like when he was in the majority.
McCarthy never did get that speaker’s job (although not for lack of positive visualization: another time, Núñez came into his office to find McCarthy trying out his desk). But today, the ambitious, hard-charging conservative has a far more powerful position. Elected to Congress in 2006, McCarthy is now chief deputy whip for the House minority, the conference’s head recruiter for this election cycle, and the lead author of the party’s recently introduced “Pledge to America” agenda. Along with Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, he just rolled out a book called Young Guns, scolding Republicans for abandoning their small-government roots. (The title, also the name of the candidate recruitment and mentorship program dreamed up by McCarthy, is cribbed from a 2007 Weekly Standard mash note/cover package on the three lawmakers.) And, if the GOP takes back the House next month, McCarthy is widely expected to become whip—the third-ranking post in the House. He may not be a household name, even in Washington; but, after a mere two terms in Congress, Kevin McCarthy is on the brink of becoming one of the Beltway’s most influential players.
Yet the striking thing about McCarthy is just how temperamentally out of step he is with the current tenor of his party. He has a conservative voting record, yes. But he is about as far from a bomb-throwing, anti-establishment, Tea Party-esque ideologue as you can get. Although in the House only four years, the veteran politico has been swimming—smoothly—in elite Republican circles since 1987, when he signed on with Representative Bill Thomas, whose seat McCarthy essentially inherited. At Thomas’s knee, McCarthy not only made a boatload of important pals, he learned much about the art and craft of political horse-trading. Liberals may be tempted to comfort themselves with the thought that the coming Republican Congress will swiftly collapse under the weight of its own ideological zealotry and general looniness. But they shouldn’t sleep too easy. The man most intimately overseeing the circus will be a Republican Machiavelli: as calculating, shrewd, and unapologetically political as they come.
McCarthy, to his credit (and advantage), does not fit the popular conception of a Machiavelli. There is no ruthless gleam in his eye à la Tom DeLay, no unsavory smirk. Rather, the square-headed, broad-shouldered father of two has an eager, open face and a manner as sunny as his SoCal home. To engage him on the ins and outs of electoral strategy is like asking a seven-year-old to tell you about his first trip to Disney World. His words tumble out, with frequent stops, backtracks, and asides, and he ends many of his sentences in “right?” as if to make sure I’m hanging with him. “We would go through—every Thursday morning we’d look at the different ways—I would have three different ways you look at a district,” he says, explaining to me his role as recruiter-in-chief. “You look at potential people to run. I would put over the top of it census data. The reason I put census data over the top is because we’re at the end—every ten years you do a census and redistricting happens—but we’re at the very last term of that, so what the district looked like when it was drawn eight years ago is not the same as where it is now. We have great movement, right? So there might be opportunities that we normally don’t look at.”
As McCarthy grows more animated, a few strands of his tidy, prematurely silver mane come loose and dance like little antennae across his forehead. He waves his arms and uses his fingers to draw invisible circles and charts on the oval coffee table in front of us, and you sense he’s itching for a whiteboard or some PowerPoint slides. “Then I went and took how members spent their money, because I wanted to see if there was an axis there of how much somebody spends back home and how often they go back home to whether they lose in a wave election. A wave election is twenty seats or more lost. This is going to be a wave election. 2006 was a wave election. So, in doing this analysis, I came up with my own theory. I call it the McCarthy theory ... ” And on he whirls, faster and faster, giddily tossing out numbers on spending patterns and voting patterns and win-loss records and margins of victory. McCarthy spends his flights to and from the West Coast each week poring through The Almanac of American Politics, the unofficial bible of political junkies—and it shows. “He’s like Michael Barone on this stuff,” says fellow Young Gun Paul Ryan, invoking the actual author of the Almanac, famous for his encyclopedic command of political minutiae.
McCarthy does not hail from a political family, or a Republican one. A Bakersfield native, he is the offspring of workingclass Democrats: his father a fireman and his mother a homemaker. Kevin worked to help pay for his first semester at Bakersfield College by reselling vehicles he would bring back from car auctions in Los Angeles. But then fate intervened. On the second day that the California lottery was in operation, McCarthy bought a ticket that paid out $5,000. Sinking his winnings into the stock market, he quickly turned enough of a profit to leave school and open up a small deli named Kevin O’s. (“It turned out to be a lot like Subway before Subway, right? Fresh baked bread. And I had all these different sandwiches—artichoke heart and cream cheese. I just made ’em up!”) The business did well, but the experience left McCarthy with a distaste for big government. “Every sandwich I sold, the city got more sales tax, the state got more. But they came in and they would want to give me a ticket because I have a sign outside trying to get more business, right?”
Selling the deli and returning to school in 1987, McCarthy applied for an internship in the Washington office of his congressman, Bill Thomas. He was rejected. Undeterred, he volunteered to clip news stories, gratis, in Thomas’s Bakersfield office. McCarthy and his boss soon bonded (over, among other things, their love of cars), and McCarthy began his climb toward district director.
When McCarthy started with him, Thomas was an eight-year veteran of the House, and his political machine would dominate his California district for nearly two more decades. In Washington, the veteran congressman—known in near-equal measures as brainy, hardworking, and mean—became a force to be reckoned with, especially during his tenure as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Through Thomas, McCarthy hobnobbed not only with local party players but also with national names like Newt Gingrich and spinmeister Frank Luntz. Such connections and cachet came in handy as McCarthy began dabbling his own toes in the political waters. In 1999, he was elected chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. In 2000, he won a seat on the Kern County Community College District Board. Two years later, he was on his way to the California Assembly.
In Sacramento, McCarthy took off running. One of his early moves was to start holding tutorials with fellow Republicans. “I made flash cards for all the members; then I’d have them over to my apartment at night and we’d watch old videos of the floor,” he recalls. “Because if you’re in the minority, every advantage is against you, right? So the only advantage you have against the majority is they’re too lazy to know their own rules, right? So it’s like a game of poker.” McCarthy and his colleagues would “wait and wait” for an opportunity to zing the majority on a technical point. “Once you beat them, they were afraid to fight you again,” he explains. “And you could then go out and say, ‘I’ve got four aces,’ when you have nothing. But they don’t know the rules. They don’t know if you’re right or wrong.”
For McCarthy, homework isn’t limited to boning up on arcane points of procedure. Far more important is the knowledge of what makes fellow members tick, both politically and personally. “You can never have too many friends” is one of his guiding precepts. And in this regard he is considered a master. “I’ve never seen anyone before or since who can build personal relationships with members of all stripes and all parties as well and as thoroughly as he does,” says California congressman and former state assembly member John Campbell, a Republican who has known McCarthy since their time in Sacramento.
During his first weeks in the assembly, McCarthy moved aggressively to bond with fellow freshmen, traveling to their home districts to learn more about their political situations and priorities. Back in the state capital, he was forever setting up social events for members. Sacramento can be a lonely place with people’s families back in the districts, says Tony Strickland, another former GOP assembly colleague. “Kevin would organize fun things—invite members to play pool, go to movies, go get ice cream.” Small wonder McCarthy was voted minority leader during his first term.
Nor was McCarthy’s outreach limited to his own team. One of his early friendships was with Democratic freshman Fabian Núñez—who, as luck would have it, became speaker in the same leadership elections that made McCarthy head of his conference. “We played basketball on Tuesday mornings together. We’d hang out and do happy hour together,” Núñez recalls. “We’d talk about our families. We got to know one another without necessarily getting into politics.” McCarthy, says Núñez, “could separate his political views from his friendships.”
But that did not mean McCarthy’s rampant sociability was devoid of strategic value. “I like to be around people so I ended up being roommates, right? I had a house. I lived with four guys,” he recalls of his Sacramento days. “We had one room there where we put a poker table. And at night, after hours, you could come there, right? But it was pretty much just members.” Assembly members, state senators, freshmen, veteran legislators—they all came to Kevin’s place. And in the course of those evenings, he recalls, “I learned everything that happened in every committee while we’re sitting around talking. You can’t serve on every committee. But you can know what happened, what the debate was, who said what.”
McCarthy’s talents went beyond extreme networking; he also understood how the negotiating table worked. “American politics has always been about accommodation and compromise,” says Thomas. His protégé, he recalls, grasped very quickly the futility of trying to force people to do what you want. Núñez agrees. “Kevin is smart enough to know that, when dealing with politics, you have your views that are important,” he says. “Beyond that, you have to accommodate the other side.” * Case in point is the transportation infrastructure negotiations, a $20 billion bond that was initially negotiated between Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, McCarthy, and Núñez. Even as McCarthy fought for items important to his district, recalls Núñez, he also agreed to significant investment in light rail for inner cities. “The same is true for the budget we negotiated,” says Núñez. “He always advanced his Republican agenda but compromised. He would negotiate a deal and say I can deliver x number of votes, and you could always take it to the bank.”
In turn, when McCarthy needed a favor, Núñez was happy to oblige. “Sometimes he would come to me and say, ‘Look, a couple of the Republicans here are not being team players. Do whatever you need to do, but I would appreciate it if they didn’t have good offices,’” says Núñez. “Then I would take away their offices.” But when they’d come to complain, he chuckles, “I would never say I was doing it to help Kevin McCarthy.”
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that when Thomas decided to retire from the House in 2006, he gift-wrapped his seat for McCarthy. The veteran congressman did not announce his intention to step down until four days before the state’s filing deadline for the primary. By that time, McCarthy—who has coyly maintained he had no advance warning of Thomas’s plans—had reportedly locked up the endorsements of local officials and the support of key local moneymen. Thomas saw to it that the party’s national establishment embraced his anointed successor as well. Starting that March, McCarthy made the Washington fund-raising rounds with Thomas, appearing at big-money events alongside Gingrich and thenMajority Leader John Boehner.
McCarthy’s campaign chest quickly swelled to over $1 million, little of which he needed for his own cakewalk to the House. Perpetually on the lookout for new friends, he set about sharing the wealth. He distributed tens of thousands of dollars to open-seat Republican candidates as well as $50,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Illinois Congressman Peter Roskam was among those to receive a helping hand. In the midst of his tough race for a Chicago-area seat, recalls Roskam, “I got a phone call from him. He says, ‘Hey, I’m coming into town, and I’d love to have breakfast.’” The two men sat down at the Hyatt in Lisle, Illinois, where McCarthy expressed his desire to help Roskam any way he could. “When you’re involved in a competitive race,” says Roskam, “having people come over the hilltop, so to speak, is incredibly encouraging.”
Hopscotching from state to state, McCarthy visited upward of a dozen aspiring House members. By the time he actually arrived in Washington, the friendly freshman had cemented his reputation as an exceedingly helpful guy. His Republican classmates expressed their appreciation by electing him their representative to the Steering Committee—giving McCarthy his first seat at the leadership table.
In office, McCarthy continued his charm offensive: He studied up on people’s districts, paid courtesy calls to senior members, chatted with often-overlooked Hill staffers. (The pickup basketball games endure.) Teaming up with Ryan and Cantor on the Young Guns project gave him even more opportunities to network with both current and aspiring members, not to mention establish his identity as strategy maven. By the time Cantor went looking for a chief deputy whip following the 2008 elections, McCarthy was the obvious choice.
McCarthy’s diplomatic skills come in handy in today’s fractured Republican conference. Colleagues say the deputy whip avoids alienating different factions by not aligning himself too closely with any of them. “What we’re talking about is the conservativemoderate, RSC versus Tuesday Group kind of tensions,” says John Campbell, referring to the coalition of House conservatives known as the Republican Study Committee and the more moderate (and much smaller) Tuesday Group. “I think he is able to navigate those waters by not being affiliated with either one.” As Strickland puts it, “Moderates think he’s a moderate. Conservatives think he’s a conservative.” McCarthy’s mentor Thomas applauds this kind of strategic neutrality. “It gives you a greater opportunity to accomplish your goals than if you walk around, sandwich board over your shoulder, telling people where you are and what you stand for and that you won’t budge,” he says.
So impressive is McCarthy’s bridge-building that he’s said to be the rare member to straddle the trust gap between Minority Leader Boehner and Minority Whip Cantor. Tensions between the two—fueled partly by temperamental differences and partly by the hyper-ambitious Cantor’s hot breath on Boehner’s neck—are hardly a secret around Capitol Hill. McCarthy has one foot firmly planted in each camp. Coming in, he was seen as Boehner’s guy, in part because of the minority leader’s ties to Thomas. (During the 2006 leadership race to replace the embattled DeLay as majority leader, Thomas stunned colleagues by nominating Boehner over interim leader Roy Blunt.) Boehner tapped McCarthy to write the 2008 platform, and, earlier this year, put him in charge of drawing up a governing agenda for Republicans to hawk in the midterms, the document that became the “Pledge to America.” At the same time, as chief deputy whip, McCarthy now owes arguably even more to Cantor. In some leadership spats, McCarthy publicly sides with Cantor, in others, with Boehner. Asked about the trickiness of being the man in the middle, he laughs and shrugs, “It’s not always easy, but it works.”
Of course, McCarthy’s balancing act could become much tougher if his party does indeed win the House. As Boehner once told me, keeping members focused and unified in opposition is infinitely easier than trying to run the show—and that’s not even taking into account the ongoing ideological war within the GOP. Depending on how many Tea Party-fueled revolutionaries carry the day, McCarthy could find himself herding a particularly obstreperous clutter of cats.
Still, I wouldn’t bet against him. Whether inviting colleagues for ice cream or having their offices downgraded, the relentlessly upbeat Californian keeps his eyes on the prize. “Very few people have his political instincts,” says Tony Strickland, echoing pretty much everyone I spoke with. More often than not, those instincts help Kevin McCarthy get what he wants.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the November 11, 2010, issue of the magazine.