Kevin McCarthy speaks to the media while flanked by Eric Cantor and John Boehner at the U.S. Capitol in January. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Kevin McCarthy speaks to the media while flanked by Eric Cantor and John Boehner at the U.S. Capitol in January. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Republicans in the House of Representatives today have chosen a new majority leader — the No. 2 spot right behind House Speaker John Boehner. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is replacing Eric Cantor, who suffered a stunning primary defeat last week at the hands of a tea party candidate.

By all accounts, McCarthy had the job sewn up even before Thursday’s vote. And it isn’t hard to figure out why. He’s very well liked.

“Kevin is an authentically good person,” says Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council. The ITIC’s member companies include Facebook, HP, Google and Intel.

While McCarthy represents the Central Valley, his relationships with Silicon Valley really set him apart among Republicans.

Garfield says the ITIC named McCarthy its “Legislator of the Year” in 2012.

“He has a high emotional IQ,” says Garfield. “You know, he really knows how to connect with people and motivate them to take action.”

McCarthy was in the state Assembly when he won his congressional seat in 2006. When he arrived in Washington, Nancy Pelosi was speaker and the Republican Party was back on its heels, mired in scandal. McCarthy described it to me this way in a 2011 interview:

“I got in before the party rose up at the time and grew,” he said. “Sometimes if you’re in front of the wave, you can ride some of it.”

Charm and Easy Manner Helped

And ride it he did. McCarthy’s charm and easy manner helped him rise quickly. He recruited young conservative Republicans to run for office — “Young Guns” they were called — and many got elected.

These Young Guns are loyal to McCarthy, but they’ve also complicated his job counting votes as House whip. In several high-profile stumbles, it left McCarthy unable to round up Republican support needed to pass critical legislation, forcing Boehner to rely on votes from Democrats.

Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says that problem will follow McCarthy in his new job as majority leader.

“Because you bring in a group of people driven by a rage against leaders, an unhappiness with the status quo, and you’re the leader,” Ornstein notes. “And you’re in some ways trying to get them to do things that represent that status quo. It’s not going to be an easy task.”

 But McCarthy has given Democrats their share of grief.He’s led opposition to federal funding for California’s high-speed-rail, even though the first leg of it goes through his Kern County district. San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren chairs the Democrats’ congressional delegation from California. She says that while she likes McCarthy personally, she’s been dismayed by his penchant for divisive slogans — like “fish versus farms” — pitting growers against environmentalists in the battle for water.

“You know there’s been that kind of false dichotomies that he’s participated in,” Lofgren says. “I think the leader has to play a different kind of role. And I would hope that he would step up to the bat for that.”

 McCarthy comes from a racially diverse district — 37 percent of his constituents are Latino. And unlike many in his party, McCarthy says he supports extending legal status to undocumented immigrants, if not a full path to citizenship.

That’s a far cry from passing immigration reform in the House. But Lofgren sees McCarthy’s ascension to majority leader as a chance to fix a dysfunctional situation.

“And I know that Kevin has heard that from his own constituents,” Lofgren says. “Certainly the agricultural community in California has been very vocal about what a catastrophe the current system is.”

 McCarthy seems to have little appetite for the media spotlight. He also avoids getting mired in the details of complex issues, something he may need to change as Majority Leader.

 But unlike Eric Cantor, one thing McCarthy doesn’t have to worry about is losing an election. Earlier this month he got 100 percent of the vote in the California primary.

 

For more on what McCarthy’s appointment means for Californians, reporter Mina Kim spoke with Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State University.

  • Kurt thialfad

    Cantor lost because of Democrat crossover votes. That is so obvious, but has not been mentioned by the media. Virginia had an open primary. In Cantor’s district, Virginia’s 7th, there was no contest on the Democratic side. What is a eager Democrat voter to do, except to ‘poison’ the outcome and vote against Cantor?

    • iJustMadeThis

      So did South Carolina, and Lindsey Graham won his senate primary. If Graham didn’t win the majority of his primary votes, then your argument may have something, but he did. So what’s your point? Polls in Cantor’s district said the constituents favor immigration reform; they just let go of him because he lost his touch with his constituents by focusing much more on the national politics, rather than truly representing his district.

  • Pamela

    You take down one TRAITOR, Eric Cantor, and the RICH GLOBALIST ELITE have one waiting in the wings to replace him with.

    AMERICANS flee your state, flock to California, and overwhelm them with mobs of enraged Americans, to force out the ILLEGALS.

    Let’s take our country back from TRAITORS like John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Jeff Denham, OBAMA, KEVIN MCCARTHY, and every other RINO.

    SOS!!! SOS!!

    • dave

      Obviously, we have enough enraged Americans in California. We thank you for your opinion, but we will need to decline your offer.

    • Villaca

      What country is yours? You could’ve been born in this land but you are a native of this land.

Author

Scott Shafer

Scott migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government. Now he covers those things and more as host of the California Report and Senior Correspondent for KQED Newsroom. When he's not asking questions you'll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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