Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-California) has had a meteoric rise in politics and by early indications, will be the next Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. I had the privilege of knowing and working alongside McCarthy over twenty years ago as a Young Republican and saw first-hand how his raw political skills would bode well for him. If he is successful in being the next Majority Leader, those very skills may be put to their most important test yet.
But it's how McCarthy will get there that is important.
The first time I recall meeting McCarthy was in 1993 in West Virginia at a national Young Republican convention. Wanting to run for office someday myself, I had recently joined the local YR club in Memphis, Tennessee and was recruited to attend their national convention, know nothing of the people involved nationally. It was at this very gathering I saw a competitive three-way race where the front-runner failed to secure the necessary votes in the first three ballots. Several ballots later the candidate who was third was elected Chairman and it was the art of counting votes that got them there. More on that later.
People often accuse YR's of being little more than an overgrown fraternity or sorority that enjoys partying more than campaigning, but for a handful of political wannabes, that's far from the truth. Remember, this is the same organization where former GOP strategist Lee Atwater honed his skills and the same place that was grooming McCarthy and others like myself for careers as elected officials and political operatives.
Over the next two years I got to know Kevin much better. He was an in-state staffer for former Rep. Bill Thomas (R-California) and I held a similar position for former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tennessee). He served as an officer under a fellow Tennessean who was elected national YR Chairman in 1995 and I served in the number three spot when McCarthy held the second position two years later. He was elected national YR chairman in 1999.
Moving forward, I was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2000 and McCarthy to the California Assembly in 2002 where he quickly became the Republican Minority Leader in a deep-blue state. He was elected to Congress in 2006 and became Majority Whip in 2010. Here are few of the qualities that make McCarthy hard to beat.
The moment you meet Kevin you notice his gigantic, welcoming smile and his ability to make you feel like you're the only person in the room. This is an invaluable trait for a politician and McCarthy has "it," if you can define "it." I hesitate to compare many Republicans to former President Bill Clinton, but their one similarity between the two may be the ability to remember your name when they see you a year later and to make you feel as if they've known you for twenty years. You can bet McCarthy knows every single member of the GOP caucus, something about their family and most of their political past. Plus, if they were elected from '08 on, he most likely had something to do with raising them money or getting them support in their district.
It was during my involvement with the national YR's that I learned the art of counting votes. I suspect the same was true for up and coming politico from California.
The art of voting counting is critical in intra-party political races. Let me take that back; its vital. Those who understand, learn and master this skill set win. Those who don't come in either second or last but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter; because second is as good as last.
When McCarthy learned his Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) was defeated by a Tea Party unknown, he was in his Capitol Hill office (where he sleeps) with his staff where he immediately began making phone calls to solidify his support. This is one area where he excels.
McCarthy knows it is not enough to ask a colleague for their support. After all, they're all politicians and are masters at using lots of words that mean nothing. In his charming manner, McCarthy was asking colleagues if they would fully commit to his candidacy; not if they thought he was a great guy or would make a great leader, but would they publically commit to him and would they support him on the first and subsequent ballots if needed. In other words, would they lay down their political future for him? In return he promised to do the same for them.
Does McCarthy have his detractors and shortcomings? Sure, but his political and personal skills more than make up for those. His biggest complaint is that he has failed to deliver the necessary votes on some of the biggest issues the current Congress has faced and that his skills of winning elections cannot easily be transferred to crafting public policy. But in this and future Congresses, that may not matter much.
McCarthy obviously never met former President Lyndon Johnson, but I can also guarantee you he has read his biography, Master of the Senate. He mirrors Johnson in the art of vote counting but McCarthy's style is to use honey instead of the whip.
Knowing McCarty, I suspect he has the necessary votes plus some to make up for the colleagues who will lie to him to secure the leaders spot. His opponent and fellow GOP colleague, Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho) may be giving it the 'ole college try on behalf of the Tea Party caucus, but his intra-party skills are not even in the same class as McCarthy's.
We'll find out how good McCarthy's vote counting skills are on June 19. We'll find out how good a Majority Leader he is in November.