McCarthy's Do-or-Die Moment: Majority Leader or Bust!

McCarthy's Do-or-Die Moment: Majority Leader or Bust!

As the shocking news last night of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor losing his primary traveled like lightning around Capitol Hill, pretty much everyone was taken by surprise. After all, since the inception of the position of Majority Leader, no occupant of that position of prestige and influence had ever lost his own party’s nomination for reelection. Ever.

For many on Capitol Hill, the late evening was spent chattering about the upset loss–with allies of Cantor lamenting his defeat and detractors, some quite discreetly, applauding the results. 

For one of the more focused and effective pols in Congress, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the time spent by others kicking around the news was an opportunity to gather his team around him in his oversized offices in the United States Capitol, no doubt quickly developing an action plan so detailed that even his fictional counterpart, Congressman Frank Underwood from the House of Cards, would be impressed.

One has to appreciate the irony that McCarthy’s penchant for being cold and calculating in his politics, which had benefitted his close friend and mentor Cantor on so many occasions, was now in motion just minutes after the Majority Leaders political passing. No time for tears.

Perhaps McCarthy’s biggest challenge is that up to this point, his strategy has always been to be number two to Cantor, helping boost him up the rungs of the leadership ladder, always counting on Cantor to reach back down and pull him along. When Cantor was the Whip, McCarthy was his Chief Deputy–often having to play the “heavy” so that Cantor could be the nice guy. This nature of their relationship stayed consistent as Cantor advanced to Leader, and McCarthy to Whip.

There is no in-depth profile of McCarthy that is more insightful than Michelle Cottle’s 2010 piece in the New Republic, where she cast the Congressman as “a Republican Machiavelli: as calculating, shrewd, and unapologetically political as they come.”

In her piece Cottle famously noted that as McCarthy traveled on cross country flights back to his deeply red California Central Valley, he would read the Almanac of American Politics, memorizing key facts about all of his colleagues.

That said, jumping into the race to succeed Cantor would thrust McCarthy into the position of being the candidate, rather than just the kingmaker–a transition that might be a little tricky.  

McCarthy is certainly skilled at being friendly with everyone, and not getting overly drawn into other people’s battles and skirmishes. But sometimes the way to bring together your own loyal followers is to fight on their behalf–to make their battles your own. As a political analyst once said of McCarthy, he refers to every faction in the third person because he considers himself part of none of them.

Given the nature of Cantor’s loss, to a challenger on the right, McCarthy’s Achilles heel is that he is the quintessential “establishment” Republican–hardly a conservative ideologue. In fact, going all of the way back to his days as a leader in the California Young Republicans, McCarthy was infamous for battling against conservatives in the Golden State.  

A quick look at the scorecards of two of the most credible conservative organizations that produce such policy yardsticks demonstrates that McCarthy does not vote nearly as conservatively as his right wing district back home. On the Club for Growth Scorecard, which focuses primarily on economic growth issues, McCarthy’s scores over the last three years were, respectively, 63, 66 and 53 out of 100 (last year he ranked a lowly 189th in the House). The Heritage Action For America Scorecard for 2013 gave him a 57.  It is pretty much that case that there has been no “deal” made on Capitol Hill that McCarthy has not helped to broker.  He is truly the insider’s insider.

While it is likely that McCarthy has developed a plan for a run for Majority Leader, and while it is probable that he will execute on that plan lest someone else hopscotch over him, it is not certain that he will run.  

Ben Shapiro writes here at Breitbart News that the “Young Guns Are Shooting Blanks”–and In fact Peter Roff, a contributing editor over at U.S. News & World Report, writes that with Cantor’s loss, his closest ally, McCarthy, “…is out of the line of succession.”

The list of ersatz Majority Leaders isn’t short: Hensarling, Sessions, Jordan, McMorris-Rogers, and more. No doubt McCarthy is hoping a cadre of conservatives all step up to run. 

But not even Nate Silver would lay down odds against McCarthy, who will say or do anything, exuding his boyish charisma the entire time, to go for the political gold.