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Lucky Guy? Kevin McCarthy Once Won The Lottery. Now He Might Be Speaker

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is seen on Capitol Hill shortly after being elected House majority leader in 2014. He's now the leading candidate to replace House Speaker John Boehner when he retires next month.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is seen on Capitol Hill shortly after being elected House majority leader in 2014. He's now the leading candidate to replace House Speaker John Boehner when he retires next month.

This post was updated at 4:15 p.m. ET

In the wake of House Speaker John Boehner's surprise resignation, one name has quickly emerged as the front-runner to replace him: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

McCarthy made his campaign official Monday afternoon, writing in a letter to his Republican colleagues:

"If elected Speaker, I promise you that we will have the courage to lead the fight for our conservative principles and make our case to the American people. But we will also have the wisdom to listen to our constituents and each other so that we always move forward together."

Boehner told reporters on Friday he thinks McCarthy would "make an excellent speaker." Boehner said he will resign the speakership and his House seat at the end of October.

The 50-year-old Californian has spent only nine years in the House. That's a relatively short tenure for any caucus leader, and it would make him one of the least-experienced speakers in congressional history.

But from Bakersfield to Sacramento to Washington, McCarthy's career has been defined by meteoric rises to power. The main reason for that, colleagues have long said, is McCarthy's knack for relationship-building, as well as a talent for fundraising.

Striking Gold In California

McCarthy grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., which is only about 100 miles north of Los Angeles but may as well be a different planet than coastal California. Agriculture and oil are the dual kings of Kern County's economy.

McCarthy's first big break came when he was a 19-year-old student at California State University, Bakersfield. He bought a lottery ticket and won $5,000.

"I put the money in the stock market, made a little out of that," McCarthy told KQED in 2011. "And then, at the end of the semester, I took my money out of the market. I refinanced my car, and I went and opened a deli."

Operating that deli, McCarthy told the public radio station in 2011, turned him on to conservative ideas. Like many business owners, he got fed up with taxes and regulations.

McCarthy got into politics, first as an aide to his local congressman, Rep. Bill Thomas, a Republican, who eventually chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

McCarthy eventually ran for office himself, winning a seat in California's state Legislature in 2002. His rise in Sacramento was even faster than in Washington; McCarthy was elected minority leader in the California State Assembly when he was still a freshman.

Another California Republican, Rep. Tom McClintock, was a state senator at the time. He watched McCarthy work from across the California State Capitol and was impressed.

"I think he did an extraordinary job of simply holding firm to Republican principles in a state assembly where Republican principles were in short supply," McClintock said.

A 'Young Gun' In Washington

McCarthy only served two terms in Sacramento, however. His mentor, Thomas, retired in 2006, and McCarthy ran for and won the Bakersfield-area congressional seat.

His was a rare easy Republican victory in a cycle dominated by Democrats. The 2006 election put Republicans in the minority in the U.S. House for the first time since 1994, but McCarthy quickly carved out a spot for himself in the GOP conference as a top fundraiser and recruiter.

2008 was another tough cycle for the GOP, but as the 2010 elections approached, McCarthy and other emerging Republican leaders began calling themselves the "Young Guns."

NPR profiled McCarthy, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and now-former Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., in 2010. "The leaders of the Republican Party are going to be the ideas of the party," McCarthy said at the time. "You know, a lot of people sit back and say, 'Who's the next Newt Gingrich?' It's this freshman class coming in. It's the ideas that [are] here. That's what's driving this party. That's the definition of 'Young Guns.' "

Ideas — and a love for early morning workouts. McCarthy bonded with new members by exercising at the crack of dawn, and through turning his office into a sort of clubhouse. McCarthy was even seen at the Capitol with Tony Horton, creator of the P90X workouts. Here's Ryan talking about it:

Raising boatloads of money for Republican House candidates also helped. All that networking paid off in 2011, when, after the party re-took control of the House, McCarthy was elected majority whip.

The New York Times captured McCarthy's leadership style in a memorable 2011 profile:

"Sometimes late at night, the freshmen will drop by McCarthy's other office, the one reserved for the majority whip behind a door marked H-107 on the first floor of the Capitol.

"The whip's office is the unofficial retreat for the House Republicans — but particularly for the freshmen, 19 of whom bunk in their own offices across the street. Ostensibly, they amble into H-107 to filch one of McCarthy's granola bars or to get some information on a pending legislative matter.

"The likelier reason is to relieve boredom or loneliness or the desire to duck out of sight for a while. At times the corporate-­flophouse panorama resembles an airport frequent-flier lounge, complete with beer and wine.

" 'This is what I want,' McCarthy told me. 'I want them living in this office.' More to the point, he wants them to feel a connection to what his office and the Republican leadership are up to. The walls of H-107 subliminally reinforce this sense of belonging, covered as they are with framed images of freshmen alongside senior members, all in black and white like statesmen from some nobler era."

A 'Master' Listener

Many of the new members who entered Congress in 2011, with Tea Party support, were restless to confront the Obama administration. Right away, McCarthy and other Republican leaders started a series of fiscal standoffs with the president.

"We have one in the White House who doesn't know how to lead except from the back," McCarthy said on the House floor during a 2011 confrontation over whether to raise the debt ceiling.

But in several high-profile cases, McCarthy and other leaders had a hard time rounding up the votes they needed. One notable embarrassment — the struggle to pass the farm bill, a normally bipartisan measure, in 2013.

Still, when Cantor, then majority leader, lost his seat in 2014, McCarthy easily won the second-ranking job. And now, he appears to be the man to beat for the speakership.

McCarthy's views aren't too far from Boehner's. That said, many of the conference's more conservative members — people like McClintock — are optimistic about the possibility of the Californian at the helm.

"I never found John Boehner to be a particularly good listener," McClintock said Friday. "Kevin McCarthy has mastered that long-lost art of listening. That's perhaps why he's so good at building consensus."

Others aren't so sure McCarthy can break the House's habit of last-minute dramatic showdowns, like the current debate among conservatives over whether to try to force a government shutdown over federal funding for Planned Parenthood. CNN reported Sunday that McCarthy is "privately assuring Republicans he'll take a tougher stand" than Boehner. But it's not clear that will be enough.

"The next speaker's going to have some of the same challenges that this speaker had," said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, who is one of a small number of moderate Republicans in the House.

Challenges that, on Friday, Boehner decided he'd had just about enough of.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.