While most of the attention on the final night of this year’s Republican National Convention will understandably be on President Donald Trump’s speech, a number of other Republican politicians will also have prime-time speaking slots.
One of these Republican politicians is Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Minority Leader in the United States House of Representatives.
McCarthy has long been a leader in the Republican Party, but unlike Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi or Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, McCarthy rarely makes headlines.
If Trump fails to win reelection in November, the Republican Party will likely face an identity crisis as well as see a power vacuum at the top. This could spell the end of McCarthy’s political career.
Kevin McCarthy’s early years
McCarthy was born in 1965 and grew up in a working class, Democratic home in the central California town of Bakersfield. His father, Owen McCarthy, was a fireman, while his mother, Roberta, was a homemaker.
McCarthy’s official GOP biography states that he was 21 when he “fulfilled his dream of opening his own small business, Kevin O’s Deli.”
A 2010 profile in The New Republic provides more details.
After working to pay for his first semester at Bakersfield College, a community college, McCarthy bought a ticket in California’s newly launched lottery. He won US$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 … The business did well, but the experience left McCarthy with a distaste for big government.”
McCarthy sold the deli in 1987 and returned to school, attending California State University in Bakersfield where he completed both graduate and undergraduate degrees in business.
McCarthy still lives in Bakersfield with his wife, Judy, his “high school sweetheart” and their two children.
Kevin McCarthy enters politics
While in school, McCarthy interned for Representative Bill Thomas, a Republican, whose congressional district included Bakersfield. Following the internship and the completion of his degrees, McCarthy joined Thomas’ staff. He would eventually become district director for Thomas.
McCarthy’s professional career since then has been almost entirely spent in politics. In 2000, McCarthy was elected as a Trustee to the Kern Community College District (Bakersfield is located in Kern County). Two years later, he was elected to the California State Assembly.
The New Republic described assemblyman McCarthy’s talents as “extreme networking” and understanding “how the negotiating table worked.” McCarthy built lasting political alliances with major power players, including future Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
McCarthy also had luck on his side. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that McCarthy became the state assembly minority leader – or “Republican leader” as he preferred to call the position. In the same year, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger became the Republican governor of the state. This meant that, even though Democrats controlled the state’s legislature, Republicans had a voice.
When Thomas announced his retirement in 2006, McCarthy was the natural heir. He easily won the seat – with Thomas’ backing – and has held it ever since.
With Republicans taking control of the House in the 2010 midterm, McCarthy became the House Majority Whip in 2011, then rose to the position of House Majority Leader in 2014. That made him the second most powerful leader in the House after then-Speaker John Boehner and, later, Speaker Paul Ryan.
In 2018, when the Democrats took back the majority in the House, McCarthy’s title shifted to the House Minority Leader. Despite being challenged in this year’s election by Democrat Kim Mangone, a US Air Force veteran, and recent polling showing that McCarthy is viewed more unfavorably than favorably, he is expected to hold onto his seat due to a significant fundraising advantage.
Kevin McCarthy’s political ideology
McCarthy describes himself as “a principled conservative, who strongly believes that we must protect our nation’s founding ideals.” In his political tenure, his focus has been on the private sector, advocating for lower taxes and fewer regulations.
Despite his self-identification, the political ideology of the bills he has sponsored or co-sponsored in Congress make McCarthy one of the most left-leaning of any Republican, even more so than a few Democrats. His lifetime rating from the right-wing advocacy group FreedomWorks is 65%, a relatively middling score for a Republican.
At the same time, McCarthy’s voting record has aligned almost entirely with Trump’s agenda. Since Trump took office, McCarthy has voted in agreement with the president 97.7% of the time.
McCarthy has also been a consistent defender of Trump, uniting the Republican minority in the House to support Trump during the impeachment process and pushing back against the New York district attorney’s attempts to get Trump’s taxes.
A report from The Washington Post earlier this month suggests that McCarthy’s future in the party could be tied to Trump’s. His fellow Republicans are reportedly upset that he has aligned the party so thoroughly with Trump, even as the GOP lost control of the House under his watch. If Trump were to lose the election, it is unlikely that McCarthy would remain the party’s leader in the House.
Failing to become the Speaker
McCarthy’s middle-of-the-road political path has likely shielded him from the harsher criticisms that other leaders in the Republican Party have received from Democrats and the political left. Still, McCarthy has had his share of controversies, two of which purportedly played a role in his never ascending to the role of Speaker of the House.
The first was his seeming admission that the House investigation into the killing of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 was intended to hurt former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political ambitions.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said on Fox News in September 2019. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”
His comments were interpreted as meaning the entire Benghazi controversy was purely political. At the time, McCarthy was campaigning to replace Boehner as the Speaker of the House, but this apparent gaffe reportedly undermined that goal.
However, others in the media suggested it was instead a rumored affair with Renee Ellmers, formerly a House representative for North Carolina, that actually derailed McCarthy’s political ambitions. The affair was never confirmed, but it was widely circulated in political circles.
Whatever the reason, McCarthy dropped out of contention for the Speaker position, which then went to Ryan. Now, if Trump loses in November, McCarthy’s career could depend on how well he adapts to the new political landscape.
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