WASHINGTON—Mainstream lawmakers saw Kevin McCarthy as an honest broker in ragged times. Those farther on the right worried that, as House speaker, he might obstruct their obstructionism.
People from all sides seemed to think they were dealing with an open book.
But McCarthy’s sudden withdrawal from the contest for speaker Thursday stunned apparently everyone in the political establishment.
They searched for answers about a man they thought of as a straight-up deal-maker with a personal touch that goes beyond the artificial, backslapping ways of Washington.
For while nice guys don’t always finish first, it’s not every day they take themselves out of the race, just strides from victory.
And if House Republicans had a yearbook, McCarthy could well have been their Mr. Congeniality.
If the silver-haired Californian hadn’t invited one of his 246 fellow House Republicans out for a movie night, he’d 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.
The majority leader who was favored to replace John Boehner as speaker energetically nurtured GOP legislators in the House since he was elected to Congress nine years ago.
To be sure, that collegial approach would not have counted for much if he did not 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. And on Thursday, for reasons that remain murky, it did not go far enough.
McCarthy promised 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.
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 have been the least-experienced speaker since 1891 if he’d dug in for Thursday’s secret Republican ballot, then got elected in an Oct. 29 open vote of the full House.
McCarthy 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 were formal “listening sessions” where legislators could 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,” said Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committeeman from California. “He knows what you want before you know what you want.”
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,” said 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. Boehner’s surprise exit opened the path for McCarthy to reach for the top GOP leadership slot.
“He was making his plea this morning for speaker and this afternoon he’s out of the race,” said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. “What happened in those four hours, I don’t know.”