Kevin McCarthy | The man who would be king

The GOP leader, who could be the next House Speaker, is widely regarded as a bright-faced, friendly and skilled political operative on Capitol Hill 

Published - November 13, 2022 12:47 am IST

Following the U.S. midterm elections, the post of Speaker of the House of Representatives looks to remain with a California lawmaker — but never have the former and aspiring next occupant of that role been more different from each other. Outgoing Speaker, Democratic heavyweight Nancy Pelosi, hails from the liberal and wealthy San Francisco district, whereas Republican Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader now waging a pitched battle to ascend the throne, represents the State’s 23rd district, a region known for “oil and agriculture, pumpjacks and seasonal workers”. It comprises the far less urbanised segments of the southern San Joaquin Valley, the Tehachapi Mountains and southern Sierra Nevada, and the north-western Mojave Desert, including most of Kern County and portions of Los Angeles and Tulare counties. Mr. McCarthy’s district also voted nearly 2-to-1 for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, notwithstanding its location in a fundamentally liberal part of the country.

So, who is Kevin McCarthy, and why has he been thrust into the limelight after the midterm elections saw the House sliding headlong towards Republican control? He certainly is the man whose comment on stopping the U.S. from writing a “blank cheque” for Ukraine as it fights off the Russian invasion raised eyebrows. But the truth is that Mr. McCarthy’s penchant for voicing support for the values of Trumpism — in this case, paring back foreign policy spending by the U.S. — runs deep and is part of a more complex picture of his ceaseless attempts to build cross-factional alliances within the party that is pulling in different directions.

Read : Explained | Will U.S. mid-term elections be a game changer?

The aspiring Speaker of the House in the post-midterm scenario was born in the small town of Bakersfield, California, in 1965, to a firefighter father, himself the son of a cattle rancher. In his childhood, Mr. McCarthy is said to have struggled with a speech impediment. After a stint experimenting in the restaurant sector, Mr. McCarthy completed his college degree at California State University, Bakersfield — all the while getting a flavour for local politics by serving in the office of Republican congressman, Bill Thomas, a future political mentor.

The Young Gun

However, while Mr. Thomas was known as an old-school, seasoned, and hardworking chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. McCarthy was contrarily regarded as a bright-faced, friendly and skilled political operative on Capitol Hill, the realms of which he entered in 2006 after four years as a member of the California Assembly. Quickly building up his networks among congressional Republicans, Mr. McCarthy soon became a master of the inner workings of the redistricting, candidate recruitment, organising and electioneering processes, all built on the classical conservative values of small government, support for the private sector and a laissez-faire attitude on social issues. In his early years on Capitol Hill, Mr. McCarthy was regarded as one of the “Young Guns” of his party, alongside the likes of Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, a cohort whose main agenda was to derail the progress of the Obama administration. Despite these various preoccupations, the real key to Mr. McCarthy’s rising star was his ability to forge alliances within the Republican Party on the back of astounding fundraising skills that his entire caucus benefited from, to the tune of over $100 million since 2016, according to reports. Yet, this very same adroitness at building bridges appears to have become his greatest stumbling block today — he is seen by each of the disparate camps within the party as being too close to their political rivals. For example, pro-Trump Republican Freedom Caucus, which has already been instrumental in denying Mr. McCarthy’s first campaign for the post of Speaker in 2015, has once again signalled its displeasure at his House leadership ambitions.

While some Freedom Caucus members are entirely opposed to Mr. McCarthy becoming the Speaker, others have hinted that they may seek to capitalise on the Republican Party’s relatively narrow control of the House to push for compromises that could weaken his position in the top post at the House. They know full well that Mr. McCarthy now needs them more than they do him, for the California Congressman will require the support of nearly every Republican in the chamber to press forward with planned political theatrics such as investigations into the conduct of the Biden White House. If control of the House does go to the Republicans and Mr. McCarthy prevails, the Biden administration should beware of the risk of partisan rancour stemming from the lower chamber’s posturing on budget and other issues paralysing the policy process.

If Mr. McCarthy prevails despite these obstacles, the Biden administration should beware of the ambition and machinations of the new House Speaker who will wield the gavel for the 118th Congress from January 3, 2023.

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