As Boehner Exits, Rapid Riser McCarthy Waits in the Wings

Will the majority leader’s ascent through the GOP ranks extend to the speaker’s chair?

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, February 11, 2015.  (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has risen swiftly through the House GOP ranks. Now he could be in for the biggest promotion of all—if his conservative colleagues will have him.

The California Republican, known for his affable approach to leadership, could ascend to the House speakership in the wake of the surprise resignation of John Boehner. That would involve assuming the responsibility for wrangling the House GOP, a group of more than 240 members who have become increasingly fractured with the rise of the conservative Freedom Caucus. McCarthy is no outsider, and if he assumed the speaker’s chair, he’d be charged with bridging the gap to the far Right, a struggle Boehner faced throughout his speakership—particularly during this session.

McCarthy, 50, “lives and breathes” politics, according to leadership ally Rep. Devin Nunes, also a California RepublicanHe has a distinguished history of serving in leadership roles within the Republican conference—The Washington Post reported last year that he is the fastest-rising party leader in history. After his election to the House in 2006—in a race he won with 71 percent of the vote—McCarthy was chosen as the freshman representative on the Republican Steering Committee. In 2008, he chaired the Republican National Convention’s Platform Committee. And just six years later, he ascended to the No. 2 post in the House GOP.

"I think that Kevin McCarthy would make an excellent speaker," Boehner said in a news conference Friday.

McCarthy wasn’t born into politics. When he was 19, he won $5,000 in the California lottery and created a deli called Kevin O’s. He used the money he made to help pay for business school at California State University, Bakersfield. That’s where he got his start politically, serving first as chairman of the California Young Republicans and later as head of the group nationally.

McCarthy worked for Rep. Bill Thomas and won a seat in California’s state assembly in 2002. There, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming the first freshman legislator to be chosen as the assembly’s Republican leader.

In 2009, McCarthy, in only his second term in office, became chief deputy whip of the GOP caucus, working closely with Republican Whip Eric Cantor. When Cantor became majority leader, McCarthy won the election to fill the open whip spot in 2011. He followed in Cantor’s footsteps again to become majority leader after the Virginia Republican suffered a shocking defeat in 2014.

After Republicans took back the Senate for the 114th Congress, the House GOP suffered a series of setbacks, from pulling a controversial abortion bill, a fight over funding the Homeland Security Department, and an election for speaker that saw the largest party revolt in 100 years. That leaves McCarthy—or whoever becomes speaker—with a huge challenge in wrangling the GOP caucus.

McCarthy has been known to reach out to his conference in various ways: from mountain biking with members, group dinners, and, in 2011, playing a clip from the movie The Town before a vote to raise the debt ceiling. His style isn’t rigid, members have said, and he often assumes the role of the nice, approachable guy.

McCarthy “takes his coat off for every meeting, he rolls up his sleeves, and he's not worried about being formal and having to look polished,” Republican Rep. Richard Hudson told Reuters in 2014.