BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, as the story goes, made his start with a stroke of good luck.
The eight-term Republican from California’s conservative Central Valley won $5,000 in a state lottery as a young man and used it to open his own deli — Kevin O’s. The money he later made selling the business helped put him through college, and the whole experience helped fuel his motivation to enter politics: to fight for the little guy and against big government and regulation.
But there is more to the tale than fate and fortune as he positions himself to reach his ultimate goal — speaker of the House — if he can navigate the land mines of being a Republican leader in the post-Trump era.
In more detailed accounts of his business success, McCarthy’s business starter money didn’t just come from the lottery winnings but from his willingness to take risks. He invested his winnings in stocks. And he also bought used cars in Los Angeles that he sold for a small profit in his native Bakersfield, a move that, in a more recent interview with The Washington Post, he concedes might have been illegal.
And so, this is what made McCarthy a growing power in American politics: A dash of luck, some shrewdness, and an extra large serving of ambition.
It’s this winning combination that has taken him from an idealistic fiscal conservative — the one-time face of the Republican Party’s future — to a loyalist of former president Donald Trump, from a failed candidate for House speaker in 2015 to the front-runner for the job should Republicans pick up the handful of seats they need to reclaim the majority in 2022.
McCarthy’s transformation hasn’t come without costs or irony.
As a rookie state legislator, McCarthy spent hours with other Republicans watching taped floor debates to study how to trip up Democrats over their own legislative process and rules. He arrived in Congress in 2007 as a self-dubbed “Young Gun” who soon would harness the outrage of the Tea Party movement. Now it falls to McCarthy to try to rein in those same energies and demands from his own members as he wrestles with a fractious House Republican caucus still fiercely divided over Trump and the violence he inspired on Jan. 6.
McCarthy, 56, has the hardest job in Washington, said analysts and former allies.
At first he was critical of Trump for his role in inciting the Capitol insurrectionists, but has since shifted to trying to appease him, while at the same time walking a fine line between the old, establishment guard and the newer, pro-Trump wing to win the midterm races he needs to become speaker. If he fails to keep his caucus united, infighting among Republicans could turn off some voters. If he fails to contain Trump, he could end up watching as GOP members are challenged for opposing Trump and replaced with candidates who may face trouble winning general elections.
“He has an incredibly difficult balancing act to pull off,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who is now a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications. “Both sides are going to be able to point at decisions he’s made that have angered them, but he is betting that his ability to bring the two sides together outweighs any resentment that they might feel toward him.”
The contortions have already been spectacular. As white supremacists and armed rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, McCarthy was reportedly on a tense phone call with Trump, begging him to forcefully tame his supporters, according to Washington Republican Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler.
In the immediate aftermath, McCarthy publicly said Trump bore responsibility for the attack. Yet he soon had watered down his stance and was on his way to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida, where he and the former president discussed the seven seats Republicans need to take back the House.
McCarthy navigated similar contradictions as he dealt with House Republicans. He defended Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican and only woman in GOP leadership, after Trump loyalists sought to oust her from leadership over her vote to impeach Trump. But McCarthy did not take action against Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene after some Republicans called on him to strip her of committee assignments over her statements fueling violence and promoting conspiracy theories. Her truculent antics continue to pose a challenge to his leadership as she and other members of the Freedom Caucus, a group of far-right conservatives, stall routine business and force the House to take time-consuming procedural votes.
The moves have earned McCarthy some rebukes. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad blasted another visit with Trump last month to discuss midterm election strategy. But analysts and allies point to McCarthy’s long lens on political strategy. He subscribes to the belief that you can’t dictate policy or implement a conservative agenda unless you control the majority — and his focus is squarely trained on regaining that majority.
His path “may or may not have prepared him to succeed at the challenge, but it has better prepared him for that challenge more so than any other member of the caucus,” Schnur said.
To understand where McCarthy’s going, it helps to know where he’s from.
McCarthy’s underdog persona and ease at making friends stretch to the earliest days of his rise in his solidly red district, which includes his hometown of Bakersfield and spans parts of the southern San Joaquin Valley just north of Los Angeles. Here, people are proudly conservative and out of step with the Democrats in Sacramento who control the state. McCarthy is seen as a hometown boy who fights for the issues they care about: oil drilling, agriculture, and water for farmers.
A random walk in March through downtown turned up two people who closely knew and liked him — a general contractor who met McCarthy through hunting shows and a business owner—as well as a teacher who taught at the same school that his children attended.
“He came to the schools, he spoke to the children in the schools, you don’t see that too often,” said Susan Maitia, 77, leaving the Mexican restaurant Mexicali with some friends.
Often echoed were sentiments like those that former representative Eric Cantor, a close friend, made in an interview with the Bakersfield Californian in 2008: “He’s a people person, understands what people want out of government and understands for us to regain momentum, we need to relate to people where they are.”
Outside Rosemary’s Creamery, Dee Johnston, 73, gushed about McCarthy, saying she had worked with his mother when Johnston ran the graphics division in the mail room at the Kern County purchasing department. “I knew of him a lot through his mom ... and I knew that any guy who treats his mother that good is a good person,” she said.
McCarthy hails from a well-known family, the son of a firefighter and a homemaker, both of whom were Democrats. He started his deli when he was 21 (though McCarthy has mistakenly claimed he was only 19) in the same space as the yogurt shop run by his aunt and uncle.
He got his start in politics in 1987 as a volunteer in the district office of California Republican Representative Bill Thomas, who had initially turned him down for an internship in his Washington office but eventually took him on as his protégé. The two were opposites in a way: McCarthy was sunny and likable, a strong campaigner; Thomas, a former political science professor and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was known for his sour demeanor and exacting eye for policy. But as his staffer and chairperson of the California Young Republicans, McCarthy tended to hew closer to his mentor’s moderate brand of politics and focus on economic issues.
His likability served him well when he was elected two years later to the California Assembly; McCarthy became Republican leader within his first year. He’d organize pizza parties at his apartment to study floor fights, getting to know members from both parties and on wide array of committees.
“He had that ‘it’ quality,” recalls Jim Brulte, who was a state senator and head of the state Republican Party. “He got elected and you knew he was on the fast track.”
When Thomas retired, he essentially handpicked McCarthy as his successor in the House. It was then that McCarthy first began straddling the line between the GOP establishment and the rising arch-conservatism within his caucus that would derail his first bid for the speakership.
McCarthy was seen many as the party’s hope for the future. After winning the seat in 2006, he and two other Republicans, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, were profiled as the Republicans’ “Young Guns” in the Weekly Standard, as they attempted to forge a new era of conservative leadership. They devised a strategy to shift the Republican Party away from the establishment and win the House majority in 2010. Their “Pledge to America” criticized the Obama administration as an “out-of-touch government” filled with “self-appointed elites” and listed legislative priorities like extending temporary tax cuts and banning federal funding for abortion.
Cantor was known as the leader, Ryan as the intellectual force, and McCarthy the strategist—a walking “almanac of American politics” able to rattle off details about members and their districts like baseball statistics. Then, like now, McCarthy was not known to have a mind for policy like Thomas, nor was he considered much of an ideological warrior.
“He is not associated with a particular policy agenda the way that Speaker Ryan was, or Speaker Boehner was,” said Michael Steel, a Republican political consultant who was an aide to former House speaker John Boehner. “But he does a terrific job keeping the team together, rowing in the same direction.”
Former Florida representative David Jolly remembers McCarthy had a way of engendering loyalty from members, whether through boosting their campaign coffers or securing tickets for their family members to the State of the Union or other events. When Jolly was first elected, he said McCarthy handed him an envelope with a $5,000 campaign check. He then asked McCarthy if there was anything he could do to make himself helpful.
“He said, ‘Yeah, just don’t be an asshole,’” Jolly said.
After Republicans won the House majority in 2010, McCarthy joined the leadership as the third-ranking Republican, behind only Boehner as speaker and Cantor as majority leader. Ryan became chairman of the House Budget Committee.
But as luck would have it, Cantor stunningly lost his Republican primary in 2014. McCarthy succeeded him as majority leader and seemed poised to become speaker after Boehner stepped down in 2015 under pressure from members of the Freedom Caucus. But they balked at McCarthy as well and Ryan was chosen as a compromise candidate.
Jolly was among those who refused to back him for speaker, and said McCarthy didn’t give him so much as a glance in the hallway afterward. “When I saw McCarthy and in real time realized he had lost that speakership race, what I also saw was a steely determination that it wasn’t going to happen again,” he said.
McCarthy stuck it out, even after Republicans lost the House majority in 2018. He cozied up to Trump, who sometimes called him “my Kevin.” And as McCarthy tries now to keep the House Republicans together, his caucus has appeared less focused on fixing the nation’s pandemic-battered economy and far more on harnessing red meat, culture war issues.
Ten years ago, McCarthy was selling $100 billion in tax and spending cuts that he said would bring new prosperity to the country. Recently, he was on the House floor defending Dr. Seuss and led a delegation of House Republicans to El Paso, where they blasted President Biden for failing to keep migrant children from crossing the border, ginning up the kind of anger and ethnic anxiety that successfully worked to rally Trump supporters in 2016.
Mark Martinez, chairperson of the political science department at California State University in Bakersfield, said this is where McCarthy feels most comfortable: consistency on policy or ideology subordinated to political theater, the pursuit of sound bites, and scapegoats.
“He is more ambition than brains,” Martinez said.
Yet, few, if any, Republicans said they would bet against him. They don’t all agree with McCarthy’s transformation, though, they tend to keep their criticism quiet. His own mentor, Thomas, spoke publicly only once —condemning McCarthy’s refusal to certify the election results after the insurrection. “It was as though they went to an extended lunch and came back and resumed their mission—reinforce, by your votes, the lies of the president,” he said in a televised interview.
But Representative David Rouzer, a Republican from North Carolina, contended debate over Trump’s role in the party was irrelevant to the larger question on voters’ minds: “Who is going to implement the policies that are best for America long term?” That, he argued, was a Republican Party focused on strong national defense and a secure border, and as “little government interference as possible“ in business and and ordinary life.
Probably no one is better suited to keep the caucus united behind those goals, Rouzer added, than McCarthy. “Navigating all of the land mines of the personalities is a special trait, I think, that Kevin embodies,” he said.
As proof, others pointed to the wins McCarthy helped secure last fall. House Republicans were expected to lose 10 to 15 seats. Instead, they gained seats and every GOP member who beat a Democrat incumbent was a woman, a person of color, or veteran.
“Congressional leadership is always juggling chain saws, but he has been keeping them in the air longer than anyone at this point and I am confident that he can get to the finish line,” Steel said.