Kevin McCarthy won the race to replace Eric Cantor as House majority leader in the blink of an eye. Less than 24 hours after Cantor’s defeat in a Republican primary in Virginia, McCarthy, the majority whip, had amassed enough pledges to be confident of winning the vote for a new Republican leader, short of some unforeseen late challenge.
He had met with 30 House allies at 3 p.m. the day after Cantor’s unexpected loss. At 3:45 p.m., the meeting broke up and his supporters began lining up votes. By 7 p.m., when McCarthy joined a dinner with lobbyists, he was certain of winning and said so, though the official vote won’t be until June 19.
How did he pull it off so swiftly? Planning and organization are lost arts in politics, often seen as less important than money, television ads, and social media. But in the small world of 233 House Republicans, they are everything. McCarthy isn’t known for expertise on policy or a deep ideological commitment. On preparedness, however, he excels.
His short-lived opponent for majority leader, Pete Sessions of Texas, had no chance of catching McCarthy. They had clashed before, and their personal relationship is cool. When Republicans captured the House in the 2010 midterms, both men were eager to become majority whip, the number three position in the House hierarchy. McCarthy locked up that post quickly, and Sessions thought better of challenging him, despite having played an important role in Republicans’ gain of 63 seats when he was head of the House Republican campaign committee. Last week, 48 hours after Cantor’s defeat, Sessions withdrew from the race, crushed by the McCarthy juggernaut.
McCarthy, who represents the most Republican congressional district in California, began planning his bid for majority leader months ago. It was based on the assumption that House speaker John Boehner would step down as early as 2015 and Cantor would succeed him. Now McCarthy, assuming Republicans hold the House with him as leader, is in the position that Cantor would have been in.
As whip, he had an advantage over Sessions. He had an organization of deputy whips experienced in lining up votes, and he deployed them the moment Cantor lost. He also had the backing of a number of senior Republicans—the so-called establishment.
The group of 30 at the 3 p.m. meeting included committee chairmen Fred Upton of Energy and Commerce, Hal Rogers of Appropriations, and Dave Camp of Ways and Means, plus influential younger House members Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, and Tom Rooney of Florida.
There was another significant factor in the success of McCarthy’s blitz. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, decided against running for majority leader. Widely respected among Republicans, he would have been a more formidable candidate than Sessions. Given his differences with Boehner on issues, he concluded it would be too troublesome to be Boehner’s second in command.
Besides, Hensarling is interested in the speakership, not being the party’s floor leader in the House. If the expected had happened—Boehner’s voluntary resignation—Hensarling would have been ready to run against Cantor for speaker. But Boehner told House Republicans last week he intends to remain speaker.
Nonetheless, a contest to succeed Boehner may still happen. Without 10 to 12 Republican pickups in November’s midterm elections, Boehner may not have the votes to win. Nine Republicans declined to vote for him in 2013, and more may in 2015. Combined with Democrats, who can be counted on to vote in unison against Boehner, he may be facing defeat. If so, he may step down before a vote.
That would prompt Hensarling to step forward. Whether McCarthy would also run for speaker is unclear, since he would just be settling in as majority leader. (Cantor ceases to be leader on July 31.) Hensarling, by the way, is not inclined to challenge Boehner directly, preferring to wait until the speakership is open.
McCarthy’s personality is one of his political strengths, perhaps his greatest. He’s surely the best-liked Republican in the House, at least among Republicans. He was elected in 2006 along with Peter Roskam of Illinois and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. For two decades, he worked for Bill Thomas, a brainy GOP House member, and ran his California office.
The question is, how conservative is he? He’s not a Tea Party Republican, a libertarian, or a neocon. He’s been called “pragmatic,” but that word is so vague as to be meaningless. To me, he’s a conventional conservative like most Republicans, Ronald Reagan included. He rounded up votes to pass Paul Ryan’s budgets, voted against TARP, and won passage of free trade agreements. The Wall Street Journal, while urging Hensarling to run for majority leader, likened McCarthy to Boehner and said he’s “known more for his political than policy chops.” Nothing wrong with that.
In 2007, The Weekly Standard dubbed McCarthy, Cantor, and Ryan “Young Guns.” Ryan was the policy guy, Cantor was on the leadership track, and McCarthy was noted for his skill as a political strategist. They were complementary. Ryan and Cantor endorsed McCarthy for majority leader last week.
Being good at strategy doesn’t mean one is bereft of other skills, and McCarthy isn’t. But to be an effective GOP leader in Congress, a knack for strategy—how best to sell conservative policies, big ones and small ones—is necessary. In the past few years, we haven’t seen much of it. If all goes well, McCarthy can change that.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard. His son works in Kevin McCarthy’s office.