June 24, 2014

Who Is Kevin McCarthy?

A look at the incoming GOP House majority leader.

House Republicans elected Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) House majority leader Thursday, as he easily deflected a challenge by Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, put forth as an alternative by more conservative Republicans. McCarthy faces questions about whether he has the bone fides to hold together the Republican caucus and represent the values that congressional conservatives find lacking in party leadership.

“Check out my voting record,” McCarthy told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on Sunday. “When they wanted to bail out Wall Street, I said ‘no’ twice. When they wanted to raise taxes … I always said ‘no.’”

This may be true, but McCarthy’s stance on immigration probably concerns his fellow Republicans most. Coming from a California district that is 35% Hispanic and depends heavily on immigrant labor, he is already under pressure from pro-(illegal) immigration groups. When asked by Wallace whether he supported a path to legalization, McCarthy said, “Until you secure the borders, you cannot have a conversation about anything else.” Many of his GOP colleagues expect him to hold the current party line: It’s useless to create new immigration laws when the White House refuses to enforce existing ones. But there’s also a well-earned high level of distrust with GOP leadership on the issue.

McCarthy steps into his new post on July 31. As House majority leader, he will be in a position to decide which bills come to the floor for a vote, and he will also be a principal spokesman and fundraiser for the GOP caucus, second only to John Boehner. He has had a fast rise through the ranks, being elected to Congress in 2006 and becoming Eric Cantor’s chief deputy just two years later. He has been majority whip since 2010. In that time, McCarthy has won the respect of his colleagues as a listener who cultivates relationships with strong interpersonal skills.

McCarthy’s quick rise through the ranks, and his nuanced approach, which has been compared to Cantor’s during his own time as majority leader, could work against him. Cantor came into the position as a respected conservative, but his shifting stances on issues allowed Democrats to dominate the agenda – the budget, ObamaCare, immigration. This lost Cantor the respect of his conservative base, and ultimately, his seat. McCarthy enters the slot at a time when a growing conservative base is finding less in common with the House leadership.

Choosing McCarthy as majority leader sends a strong signal that the GOP doesn’t want to make too big a change before the midterms. He easily fended off challenges for the post from conservatives who sought a more combative role for the party. Yet he is considered by some as less conservative than Eric Cantor, leaving the rank and file cautious.

One bright spot for conservatives was the election of Steve Scalise (R-LA) as majority whip, the number three slot in the leadership. Scalise is one of only 15 members of Congress who hold a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union (McCarthy’s rating is 95%). Scalise also handily won the position on the first ballot, and he has the power to choose his deputy whip, further enhancing the inclusion of true conservatives in the House leadership. He is a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and is on record seeking lower tax rates and an overall simplification of the code. He also wants to see the existing Highway Trust Fund, which is running dry, given back to the states where priorities can be more easily managed.

While McCarthy’s election as majority leader has not settled the concerns of conservatives, Scalise’s election as whip may hold hope. It remains to be seen whether this new leadership combination will help or hurt the Republicans in November. Perhaps the best thing the GOP can do for now is stay out of their own way.

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