Why you should care
Because when you’re a member of Congress, you can never have too many friends, or raise too much money.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is frequently compared to Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian character in the hit TV drama House of Cards. Which sounds terrible, except that it was McCarthy who allowed the actor to shadow him so Spacey could learn what a world-class political operative really does.
Perhaps that sounds even worse. The truth is, the sunny, silver-maned Californian is as far from the ruthless, hardscrabble Underwood as the two parties in Congress are from cooperating for the good of the country, even if McCarthy, like his fictional counterpart, has been relentlessly scaling the D.C. power structure. It turns out that the politician whom McCarthy might share the most with — though not ideologically — is a fellow Californian, on the other side of the aisle: Nancy Pelosi. (Most Republicans would prefer the Underwood comparison.)
Above all, McCarthy is a harvester of people.
Like McCarthy, Pelosi is a party whip turned party leader. She eventually became speaker of the House, a post that McCarthy, 50, is likely to assume when John Boehner moves on. But corralling votes in today’s Congress is different from the age of LBJ’s famous “Johnson Treatment” or Tom “the Hammer” DeLay, and certainly different from Underwood. McCarthy and Pelosi have fewer tools for strong-arming colleagues, but they are masters of soft power plays: recruiting candidates, raising money for them and painstakingly building networks of loyal followers.
Above all, McCarthy, a former minority leader in the California Assembly, is a harvester of people. While he was whip, a position McCarthy held from 2011 until he was appointed majority leader last year, his office was a pizza-filled safe haven where GOP congressional freshmen could share woes and discuss strategy. And sitting at the center was not a backroom power broker but the affable son of a fireman and a homemaker, a father of two and a natural politico whom The New York Times once called “as menacing as a summer-camp counselor.”
McCarthy was himself a novice congressman in 2007, when his party lost its House majority and Pelosi took the speaker’s chair. A Bakersfield native, he used the proceeds from a winning lottery ticket to start a deli at age 21, which in turn he used to help pay for degrees in marketing and business administration. “I took the majority of the [lottery] money and bought one stock. I believe in taking risk,” McCarthy told Politico. “But I also believe if I failed, I didn’t expect government to bail me out.”
Once in Washington, he directed his entrepreneurial talents toward working his way up another food chain. From the moment President Obama took office in 2009, McCarthy led several, often risky efforts to target and unseat Democratic representatives and recruit promising, occasionally unseasoned candidates, including many Tea Party members who would win seats in 2010.
Aside from McCarthy’s recruiting and campaign efforts, though, what really fueled his rapid rise is money — the ability to acquire it and invest it in the right candidates. A tireless fundraiser, he crisscrosses the country in chartered jets, voraciously consuming data about the districts he visits and wowing donors with his knowledge of the local political ecology. And, while McCarthy’s stomping grounds in California’s 23rd Congressional District are convenient for launching golf and wine country outings, the agriculturally dependent area has been hard-hit by the state’s ongoing drought. In response, McCarthy, in addition to shepherding major legislation like the JOBS Act in 2012, has sponsored several water-related bills to help his drought-ravaged state.
But even McCarthy couldn’t whip the Tea Party side of his caucus into line every time, and House leaders in the new GOP majority had to pull some bills from the floor, or enlist Democratic supporters, as with showdowns over a possible government shutdown in 2011. Some argue that having to cater to the far right has blunted McCarthy’s legislative effectiveness. “Historically, McCarthy has been a conservative willing to make deals with the opposition,” says Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “But with a caucus much more rigidly to the right, he has soft-pedaled his own values to be more in sync with the members.”
McCarthy would respond by steering critics to the data. According to Quorum, a legislative tracking site, the gridlock dogging Congress in recent years has started to loosen in the first six months of the 114th Congress. For example, the 175 bills passed by the House during that period easily eclipse the recent historical average and are on par with the Pelosi-led House of the 111th Congress. But for the Republicans to consolidate gains in 2016, and retake the White House, it’ll take much more, as McCarthy is the first to acknowledge. “I do know this,” he told donors last fall. “If we don’t … prove we could govern, there won’t be a Republican president in 2016.”
And it’s possible that McCarthy’s own rise may be limited: Although he’s favored to be the next speaker, a gubernatorial or Senate run would be challenging in what remains a staunchly blue state. Moreover, with a farming district dependent on immigrant labor that is 35 percent Hispanic and growing, McCarthy, says Gerston, is already on thin electoral ice, and “it’s only a matter of time until he will face serious opposition unless he softens his position on immigration.” (A McCarthy aide says the congressman insists that any discussion on immigration reform starts with securing the border and enforcing the law.)
If McCarthy continues on his current trajectory, however, such obstacles could prove insignificant in a journey that might eventually end at the White House — at which time new comparisons to Frank Underwood will surely be in order.