02.11.10

The Right's New Rock Star

With expectations through the roof, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP's top talent scout, is recruiting the candidates he hopes will win back the House.

Conditions are so favorable for the House Republicans to win back the majority—an ailing economy, an angry electorate, and a seemingly arrogant and out-of-touch Democratic elite in Washington—that "the signs point to a tidal-wave election in 2010," says renowned political prognosticator Charlie Cook.

"And when there's a tidal-wave election," Cook goes on, "you're going to win a whole lot of seats whether you have money or not, whether you have competent candidates or not. A lot of complete imbeciles are swept into office during tidal-wave elections."

California congressman Kevin McCarthy—who has been crisscrossing the country over the past year as the House GOP's chief talent scout—shrieks with laughter when I repeat Cook's imbecile line.

“Don’t blame me for picking the right timing to be in charge of candidate recruitment.”

"Don't blame me for picking the right timing to be in charge of candidate recruitment," McCarthy quips. He chuckles when I repeat another of Cook's pronouncements: "Kevin is going to come out of this a rock star."

"Oooh!" McCarthy exclaims. "I love that guy!"

Expectations are ridiculously high.

During a triumphal conference call this week between Capitol Hill reporters and members of the National Republican Congressional Committee, McCarthy did nothing to tamp them down. Instead, he sang the praises of his "fresh-faced" recruits—a homespun Southern patriot here ("Stephen Fincher told me, 'Listen, Mister Kevin, I'm just a farmer from Frog Jump, Tennessee!' "), and a dashing Midwestern war hero there. Of the latter, Adam Kinzinger—who apparently is poised to topple freshman Democrat Debbie Halvorson in Illinois' 11th Congressional District—McCarthy gushed: "He goes over and serves his country, he comes back, he's flying on reserves up in Milwaukee, he looks across the street, some guy's beating up his girlfriend, literally stabbing her, he runs across the street, directly into action, takes the guy down, helps the girl, she ends up with 100 stitches, he becomes Volunteer of the Year. That," he concludes, "is a fresh face!"

After the call, I tell McCarthy that I could almost hear the brandishing of tape measures and the rustling of carpet swatches, everything in readiness to redecorate the Speaker's suite.

"No, no, no, no," he modestly protests. "We're not that far yet."

Yet he can't resist adding: "Back in August, I felt the ground shift out from under the Democrats and I thought, 'Man, we could get to 30 seats.' I didn't really start to believe until a few months ago that, yeah, we have more than enough seats in play. We could get to more than 30 seats. I'm not saying we will get there—we've got hurdles we still have to climb."

Hard cash, for one. "It's one of our weakest areas," McCarthy admits. The House Democrats' campaign committee has been outraising the Republican committee by around five to one, McCarthy says, but he believes that trend will reverse as political momentum builds.

If Republicans do gain the necessary 40 seats to wrest control from the Democrats and depose House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the 45-year-old McCarthy will surely take a bow and assume his rightful place near the top of Washington ziggurat. But even if they fall short, and simply surpass the historical average of around 20 for the first midterm election of the other party's new president, he'll be able to hold his head high.

Aside from his recruiting job, McCarthy is House Minority Whip Eric Cantor's handpicked deputy and one of the party's top tacticians. Minority Leader John Boehner recently asked him to come up with an updated version of the "Contract With America," the House Republican platform that paved the way for the 1994 juggernaut that swept the GOP into the majority.

"We can't just be the opposition party, we have to be the alternative party," McCarthy says. "And what that means is we're going to have to lay out for the American public what our policies are. Boehner asked me to identify things for a new Contract With America. But I don't consider it that way, because no sequel ever does better than the original, outside of The Godfather Part II. Our working title right now is 'Commitment to America.' We're going to engage people across the country and come up with the 'first priorities.' And it's not going to be Washington-based. The more people we engage, the better off we are. We have to expand our turnout."

A natural pol, McCarthy was a congressional staffer, running the Bakersfield district office of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas before winning a seat in the California Assembly and promptly being chosen that body's Republican leader. In the disastrous midterm elections of 2006, when the Dems ended 12 years of GOP rule, McCarthy was one of only 13 incoming Republican freshmen—the lowest number in nearly a century. In 2008, The Year of Barack Obama, when the House Republicans lost an additional 21 seats, McCarthy won his second term unopposed.

In the meantime he founded—along with Cantor of Virginia and Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—The Young Guns, a rump group of hard-charging freshmen that operated independently of the official party bureaucracy until it was incorporated into the NRCC. McCarthy, a movie buff, appropriated the title after the Weekly Standard—one of Washington's more influential casting directors—touted the trio on its cover as "The Young Guns of the House GOP." The conservative journal cast Ryan as "The Thinker," fleshing out the policy agenda, Cantor as "The Leader," pushing the agenda in the House and beyond, and McCarthy as "The Strategist," striving to craft and market a vote-getting message.

Where Cantor is razor-thin and tightly wound, and Ryan is a numbers-crunching physical fitness nut, McCarthy is shambling and sunny, his shirttails as often as not hanging out over his suit pants. He exudes the enthusiasm of an overgrown kid and has a companionable manner that almost, but not quite, hides the fact that he is forever calculating his next three moves in the chess game of life. "He is," Charlie Cook says, "gregarious and cunning."

Even Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, finds McCarthy likeable, if misguided. "We obviously disagree strongly on politics," Van Hollen tells me, "but he's a good guy. We talk from time to time. We've gotten together for lunch."

Van Hollen acknowledges that 2010 will be a tough year for the House Dems, and that his party will very likely lose seats. "We've made it clear for well over a year now that this was going to be a bad election for us," Van Hollen says. "If you look at it historically, the first midterm for a new president is often choppy political waters. But this is not going to be 1994 all over again. The Republicans are not going to take back the House."

He cites the proliferation of Tea Party candidates who are waging aggressive and sometimes nasty primary races against Establishment-approved Republicans. In a GOP primary last week, for instance, Illinois State senator Randy Hultgren beat the party-anointed candidate, Ethan Hastert, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's son, in suburban Chicago's 14th Congressional District.

Van Hollen argues that such ultra-conservative nominees will be "outside the mainstream" and scare off moderates and independents. The unpredictable influence of Sarah Palin, who apparently plans to campaign extensively for various candidates, "will pull their nominees far to the right," he says. He cites the former Alaska governor's impact on last year's hotly contested upstate New York special election to replace Republican congressman John McHugh, Obama's nominee to be secretary of the Army. After Palin endorsed the Conservative Party candidate over the NRCC-approved moderate Republican nominee, the nominee dropped out (after the NRCC blew a million dollars on the race) and a Democrat ended up winning a House seat that had been in GOP hands for more than a century.

McCarthy, of course, scoffs at the notion that the New York debacle is a harbinger of anything. The positive signs are overwhelming. President Obama, while liked personally by voters, "has helped us by having Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid write the health-care legislation so that it was different from what he said he wanted it to be. Then there's the arrogance of the Chicago-style politics in the White House, where they have governed different from what they said during the campaign—from transparency to lobbyist, to how they view the roles of government and the free market. They've gone much further than the American people wanted them to go."

It is also clear that Republican attack machine will attempt to demonize Speaker Pelosi, and hang her around the necks of Democratic incumbents, in much the same way that the Democrats wounded Newt Gingrich and Republicans in the late 1990s. "I think Pelosi has done it to herself, by the way she runs the floor," McCarthy says. Thus we can expect a surfeit of Republican television commercials in which Democratic House members, men and women alike, morph into the grim visage of history's first female Speaker of the House.

"We can screw it up if we become Democrat Lite," McCarthy says. "We need to be bold. We need to have solutions. And if we aren't able to get our message out because we don't have the resources, that won't help. And we have to guard against infighting. The other thing is that people can get too confident. It's like when you're thinking about running before you catch the ball. You've got to catch the ball first, and we've got to do the blocking, and we've got to run the pattern correctly."

And, should lightning strike, will McCarthy run for majority leader—assuming Eric Cantor challenges Boehner for Speaker?

"No, no, no, no, no!" McCarthy demurs. "Come on, now. I believe in solving problems. When people worry about running for different races, nothing gets done."

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.