Kevin McCarthy aims to become next House Speaker, if GOP can remain in power

November 6, 2018 GMT

For House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Tuesday’s election could be the difference between achieving a dream of becoming speaker or trying to hang onto the leadership of a party out of power.

Mr. McCarthy visited 40 states, campaigned for more than 70 sitting members and nearly two dozen GOP challengers, in a bid to keep GOP losses below 23 seats, the number Democrats need to win control of the chamber.

His office said he has raised more than $60 million, including $26 million through the Protect the House joint fundraising venture with Vice President Mike Pence, and has shipped more than $17 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm for House Republicans.

The 53-year-old is widely viewed as the front-runner to become speaker, should the GOP limit its losses. Otherwise, the gavel will likely fall into the hands of another Californian, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

For now, Mr. McCarthy is begging off questions about his own political prospects, instead focusing in a statement to The Washington Times on the headwinds Republicans face, and their unified efforts to overcome them.

“Traditionally, the president’s party loses 25 seat in a midterm election with two exceptions: 1998 and 2002. And like 1998, our economy is growing,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy ticked off a list of priorities that he said voters should reward, including rising wages, historically low unemployment, more military spending, and legislation to combat the opioid epidemic.

“The country’s story is the story of the American comeback,” he said “Democrats want to instead turn that back. But together with President Trump, we will finish the job. We will pass new trade deals, toughen our stance on China, and clean up our mess of an immigration system.”

Mark Martinez, political science professor at California State University, Bakersfield, said Mr. McCarthy’s affable personality has played a big role in his political rise.

“He literally is the type of person where you say, ‘I could see him as my neighbor,’ and he plays that off well here at home, and that plays well in Washington,” Mr. Martinez said. “But he is never going to be seen as a political wonk or the smartest guy in the room.”

He said Mr. McCarthy is a good political organizer, able to read the winds, though “as far as policy, the big picture stuff that’s another story.”

But Cathy Abernathy, a GOP consultant in California, said Mr. McCarthy is more well-versed on policy than critics want to admit.

“I think it is either a mistake or deliberate by some people who confuse a very outgoing, very savvy politics person with the fact that of course he knows policy. He came through an office, where legislation was the main agenda,” Mrs. Abernathy said, alluding to his time working former Rep. Bill Thomas, who was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

The race to lead the House GOP picked up speed in the spring when Mr. Ryan announced he was not seeking re-election. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, another Trump ally, also plans to run.

Mr. Trump has not picked sides, but Mr. Ryan and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise have embraced Mr. McCarthy as the next GOP leader.

Mr. McCarthy’s last bid for speaker unraveled after he tied the Benghazi investigation to Hillary Clinton’s waning poll numbers, reinforcing Democrats’ push to cast the probe as a politically motivated endeavor. Conservatives, meanwhile, questioned whether the California Republican was too closely aligned with the GOP establishment and others wondered whether he was too gaffe-prone.

This time Mr. McCarthy has charmed his way into the good graces of Mr. Trump, appearing on a get-out-the-vote call with him Monday leaving him well-positioned to forge a better partnership than the hot-and-cold relationship with between Mr. Trump and Mr. Ryan.

“My guess is the president is very comfortable with Kevin,” said former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Democrats see that as a scary prospect.

“What is interesting here is that McCarthy has become a pet favorite of the current president,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist. “Speaker Ryan is never willing to challenger him, but what is different here is McCarthy has become his No. 1 fan and Trump has become his No. 1 fan, and that may play well with the so-called Freedom Caucus types on Capitol Hill, but he is going to be a disaster for the legislative process.”

It’s that Freedom Caucus the most conservative members of the House that likely would be a problem for a Speaker McCarthy, just as it was for Mr. Ryan and, before him, previous GOP Speaker John A. Boehner.

“There has always been a naturally dissenting 15 to 30 members,” Mr. Gingrich said. “They had them when I was speaker, they had them with Boehner was speaker, and they had them with Ryan a speaker. Kevin will have to figure out how to work with them.”