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Speaker In-waiting McCarthy Spent Years Cultivating GOP Lawmakers

  • Associated Press

Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., arrives for a meeting ahead of a nomination vote to replace House Speaker John Boehner, who is stepping down, and retiring from Congress, at the end of the month, Oct. 8, 2015.

Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., arrives for a meeting ahead of a nomination vote to replace House Speaker John Boehner, who is stepping down, and retiring from Congress, at the end of the month, Oct. 8, 2015.

If House Republicans had a yearbook, Kevin McCarthy might be their Mr. Congeniality.

If the silver-haired Californian hasn't invited one of his 246 fellow House Republicans out for a movie night, he's probably hung the member's photo on his office wall. Or shared a morning bike ride or an evening pizza. Or posted a shout-out on his busy Instagram account.

Or, most important, just heard them out.

McCarthy, the majority leader who's favored to become the next speaker of the House, has energetically nurtured GOP legislators in the House since he was elected to Congress nine years ago.

That made McCarthy the odds-on favorite to succeed John Boehner, who decided to step down as a revolt rumbled on the party's right.

But it will count for not much if McCarthy can't find a way to balance the competing demands in the Republican-controlled House. Restive conservatives are seeking a more aggressive stance against President Barack Obama, while others feel a pragmatic need for compromise to get things done in the era of oh-so-divided government.

Loyalty will only get you so far in this town.

FILE - House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. smiles after finishing a speech about foreign policy,.

FILE - House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. smiles after finishing a speech about foreign policy,.

New culture

McCarthy promises to establish a new culture as speaker, with a "bottom-up'' leadership style.

But his big flub in one of his first interviews after becoming a candidate for speaker only served to make conservatives more nervous about him.

In an appearance on Fox News, McCarthy credited the House Benghazi committee with causing Hillary Rodham Clinton's poll numbers to drop, undercutting GOP claims that the inquiry is apolitical.

Within days, McCarthy's comments had been turned into Clinton campaign ads, the majority leader was furiously backpedaling and the speaker's race had attracted a new challenger.

McCarthy, 50, would be the least-experienced speaker since 1891 if he's nominated in Thursday's secret Republican ballot and elected on an Oct. 29 open vote of the full House.

In some ways, he's had a charmed life. He got a lucky break early on with a winning lottery ticket, and has hit the jackpot more than once since then by being in the right place at the right time for a surprisingly quick climb up the leadership ladder.

McCarthy took $5,000 in winnings from a scratch-off lottery ticket, invested it in stocks, and at 21 used the money to open Kevin O's Deli in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. He turned his deli profits into college tuition and an MBA at California State University-Bakersfield. By age 22, he was working for Republican Rep. Bill Thomas, whom he would replace in Congress two decades later.

Thomas remembers McCarthy as likable, hard-working and always one to follow through on commitments.

"He's the same as he was then,'' says Thomas, "just a fish that's growing in a bigger pond now.''

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left, accompanied by outgoing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, center, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La. speaks during a new conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 7, 2015.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left, accompanied by outgoing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, center, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La. speaks during a new conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 7, 2015.

Republican clubhouse

McCarthy has turned his office, with its powerful, over-sized Steve Penley paintings of Lincoln, Washington crossing the Delaware and Ronald Reagan, into a clubhouse of sorts for House Republicans.

There are formal "listening sessions'' where legislators can delve into big topics like the budget or the debt limit.

Candid photos of GOP legislators hang on the walls - rotated to give everyone exposure.

There are also informal pizza dinners and plenty of phone calls to touch base.

"Kevin does really well because he has a big ear,'' says Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman from California. "... He knows what you want before you know what you want.''

When political networking ends for the night, McCarthy doesn't go far: He unfurls a sheet and beds down on his office couch.

If he has a guilty pleasure, it's keeping up with the latest celebrity news on HuffPost Entertainment and in the Daily Mail's online gossip column nicknamed the ``sidebar of shame.''

Solid conservative

McCarthy, whose politics fit his Central Valley district, is known as a solid conservative, but not necessarily a policy guy.

When he and fellow Republican Reps. Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor teamed up in 2007 as leaders of a new generation of Republican "Young Guns,'' Cantor was considered the leader, Ryan the thinker and McCarthy the strategist.

"He thinks more about political strategy than any human being I've ever met,'' says Steel. "Every event that he does is political. That's where he gets his sustenance. "

By 2002, when he was 37, McCarthy had gotten himself elected to the California General Assembly. And when Thomas decided to retire from Congress in 2006, McCarthy moved up, rising to House majority whip by 2011.

McCarthy took another quick step up to majority leader when Cantor was unexpectedly defeated in a GOP primary in 2014. Now, Boehner's surprise exit has opened a path for McCarthy to reach for the top GOP leadership slot.

When McCarthy was GOP whip, ``House of Cards'' actor Kevin Spacey shadowed him to research fictional character Frank Underwood's devious role as Democratic majority whip.

But McCarthy says the show is a far cry from the real Washington.

"He literally murders one member,'' McCarthy once said of Underwood. "If I could murder one member, I'd never have to worry about another vote.''

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