Even before he was elected, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, California, had made a name for himself among House Republicans. He was running for retiring Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas's seat, and the campaign quickly raised over $1 million--most of which he didn't need to spend in a district that had voted 68 percent for Bush in 2004. McCarthy instead spent his time and money campaigning for more than two-dozen Republican open-seat candidates.
"He helped just about everyone in our freshman class . . . showing up in our district, spending some time with us, as a friend and hopefully, at that time, a future colleague, and contributing to our campaign," says freshman Republican representative Jim Jordan of Ohio. Peter Roskam of Illinois concurs. "He had raised financial support for my campaign and delivered it to me personally," Roskam says. "It was not only helpful, but encouraging." Thirteen freshman Republicans were elected to the House in 2006--a year that was extremely unkind to the party--and all have a debt to McCarthy.
Born in Bakersfield in 1965, McCarthy opened his own business--Kevin O's Deli--at the age of 19 and after college earned an MBA. His political career began in 1987 when he worked as an unpaid intern in Bill Thomas's office. He stayed for 15 years, rising eventually to district director. In 2000, McCarthy was elected to the Kern County Community College District Board and, two years later, to the California Assembly. His mentor Thomas notes that McCarthy was quickly the Republican leader of the Assembly because he understood both campaigning and public service.
While Thomas handpicked McCarthy to succeed him, the two are extremely different politicians. While in Congress, Thomas was famed for his gruff and intimidating demeanor--he notoriously called the Capitol Police to remove obstreperous Democrats from a pension bill markup. In California, McCarthy was known for reaching across the statehouse aisle. Thomas believes that his successor will be essential to Republican efforts to regain the majority. He says McCarthy has "the ability to relate to people, to identify candidates, to encourage them to run, and to support them in getting successfully elected," and these traits are "absolutely essential to go from a minority to a majority." Thomas also admits his protégé is the better campaigner. McCarthy won the 2006 election with nearly 71 percent of the vote.
McCarthy was chosen to represent the incoming representatives on the Republican Steering Committee, which assigns members to committees. Jim Jordan says he supported McCarthy early for the position, because he "strikes you as the kind of guy who's got the energy and the intellect and the personality to be in a leadership position." Along with the Steering Committee, McCarthy serves on the Republican whip team.
McCarthy's top priority for Republicans is taking back the House in 2008. He believes that recent House floor battles, such as the fight over a Nancy Pelosi-instigated tax increase in the Farm Bill--historically a bipartisan piece of legislation--prove that the Democratic leadership is out of touch with most of the country. "They truly believe in the raising of taxes, and even if the committee works on a project and puts the legislation out and says 'no' to [tax increases], they will take over," he says, noting that Pelosi's philosophy is "fundamentally different" than that of the majority of Democrats and the rest of the country. He also recognizes that "you make a lot more policy when you have the majority."
McCarthy is a key member of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which works to get Republicans elected. He coined the term "Time To Earn a Majority," and had the acronym TEAM engraved on congressional-seal watches he gave to NRCC colleagues. "Every time they look at what time it is," he says, "it's time to earn a majority."
McCarthy is the mastermind behind the NRCC's recent campaign against freshman Democrats, which includes radio and television ads and automated phone calls in close to 30 districts. The ads tie the representatives to Pelosi and call attention to their liberal voting records. McCarthy is confident that these freshmen will "be held more accountable for their votes" in upcoming elections.
He is optimistic about Republicans' prospects in 2008, but adamant that the party has a lot of work to do. "The important thing--and the thing I think Republicans lack--is ideas," he says. "We need new ideas, creative ideas, and we shouldn't walk away from being conservative." By "conservative," he means lowering taxes, expanding the free market, and creating greater accountability--and not just for Democrats. In particular, he wants lawmakers held accountable for their ever-increasing earmarks. He released his own earmarks in June and encouraged his colleagues to do the same.
McCarthy is an advocate of applying new technology to government to increase efficiency and get the public more involved. "Technology has changed every part of our lives, really, except government," he notes. Innovations like podcasts and Facebook, a social-networking website popular with 20-somethings, could be used to "spur ideas." The NRCC ad campaign includes an interactive website with a blog and YouTube links to the television ads.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calls McCarthy "the future in Washington," and most of his Republican colleagues seem to agree. He's already considered a possible successor to NRCC chairman Tom Cole, who will step down in 2010. The Sacramento Bee and Roll Call have called him a "rising star." When asked his thoughts on being called such, he quipped, "Did you talk to my mom?"
McCarthy maintains that he isn't seeking a leadership position--but he hasn't ruled one out, either. "I'm trying to lay the groundwork where I can get the best information and be one of the best members here," he says. "Where that plays out, I don't know."
Samantha Sault is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.