Kevin McCarthy, the Republican who couldn’t unite his party
The politician, the first since 1923 to lose a vote to lead the House of Representatives, had longed for years to be speaker, one of the most important offices in US politics
Kevin McCarthy recounted that his 81-year-old mother, Roberta, sent him photographs of the high price of gasoline in California every week. The photos were accompanied by a question: “What have you done today to improve this?” At the end of November, McCarthy – who has been House minority leader since 2019 – replied: “Almost, Mom. You just have to wait until January 3. Almost there.”
But that day did not go as expected. The 57-year-old entered the Capitol knowing that he had a tough battle ahead. A few hours later, the lawmaker from Bakersfield, a Republican stronghold of 400,000 people near Los Angeles, lost three consecutive votes to be named House speaker. Not since 1923 has a nominee for speaker failed to win in the first vote.
McCarthy needed 218 votes, but fell short of that number after members of his own Republican Party voted against him. A new vote will be held on Wednesday. Amused by the debacle, the Democrats broke out the popcorn.
The McCarthy fiasco has confirmed the divisions in the Republican Party. Former US president Donald Trump was one of the first to support McCarthy, who was first elected as a congressman in 2007. He has been backing him since the November 8 midterm elections, which failed to deliver the “red wave” the Republicans were expecting. While the party regained control of the House, albeit by a small margin, they are now at odds over who should preside the lower chamber.
One of McCarthy’s strengths is his fundraising ability. Between August and October last year, he visited half the states in the country in a bid to secure funds from moderate donors who do not support Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. In just one night in January 2021, he netted $9 million at the Trump Hotel in Washington. According to Open Secrets, an independent organization that tracks private donations to politicians, McCarthy has raised nearly $118 million for a hundred candidates since 2016. “No one in this body has worked harder for this Republican majority than Kevin McCarthy,” said Elise Stefanik, a Republican House member from New York, on Tuesday.
Trump’s endorsement is another one of McCarthy’s most valuable political assets. But gaining that support has not been easy. McCarthy has had to perform some major U-turns to remain among Trump’s favorites – notably his position on the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. In 2021, McCarthy said that Trump was responsible for the violent siege. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” he said following the January 6 attack. Recordings and documents from that day made it clear that McCarthy was very upset with Trump’s conduct.
Eight days later, he changed his mind. “I don’t believe he provoked it, if you listen to what he said at the rally,” referring to Trump’s speech to his supporters in front of the White House shortly before the assault on the Capitol. McCarthy later voted against forming a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack and has called the Democratic-led Jan. 6 committee a partisan sham.
Political analysts believe McCarthy changed his position in order to bolster his chances of being House speaker in the event that the Republicans regained control of the lower chamber. But for his detractors, this U-turn is a sign of his weakness. Republican hardliners believe McCarthy is too soft. While he has been able to win over some members of the Freedom Caucus – the hardest right bloc within his party – he still did not have the numbers on Tuesday.
It is not the first time that McCarthy has launched a bid to become House speaker. In 2015, Republican John Boehner stepped down as Speaker of the House and McCarthy, then House majority leader, raised his hand to take over. But he lacked the support of the Tea Party faction, and rescinded his candidacy. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, was elected to the office.
If McCarthy is eventually elected House speaker, he will be the third-highest authority in the United States, after the vice president and president. He will also be the most powerful Californian among Republicans, following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, one of his great references.
Before jumping into politics, McCarthy lived the life of an average young American. His father was the deputy fire chief in Bakersfield, an oil and agricultural town with a large workforce of Latino immigrants. His mother was a housewife. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of the city and played football at the public high school. He bought used cars in Los Angeles that he later spruced up and resold in his city. In the mid-1980s, he won $5,000 in the state lottery. With the money, he opened his only business, a sandwich shop called Kevin O’s Delicatessen. The money also made it easier for him to attend California State University.
McCarthy grew up in a Democratic-leaning family, but met Republican Rep. Bill Thomas later in his career. Thomas hired him as an intern and later made him part of his team. The Republican was one of the most important political figures for McCarthy, who worked with him for 15 years. From Thomas, he learned what issues were key to winning over conservative voters: a small state, low taxes, and above all, the free market.
His political opponents have criticized him for these ideals. “There is nothing of substance there,” Nancy Pelosi, former House speaker, said of McCarthy in October. The Los Angeles Times also reported that Kevin Spacey’s performance as Frank Underwood in the series House of Cards is inspired by McCarthy. With an easy smile and a way with people, McCarthy was elected to the California Congress in 2002. He was soon a rising star. Five years later, McCarthy was elected to the House as a representative of the district that his mentor, Thompson, held for 28 years. McCarthy has now represented the district for 16 years. This year marks a new turning point.
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