It was also McCarthy who was caught on tape in 2016 telling a group of House Republicans that Donald Trump might be on Vladimir Putin’s payroll, only to become derided (or praised) as one of Trump’s biggest boosters in Congress, (“My Kevin,” Trump calls him), and so devoted to the president that he says he talks to Trump three, four, even five times a day and once sent him a jar of Starburst candies containing only the president’s favorite two pink and red flavors: strawberry and cherry.
Read: House Republicans still can’t get along
Conventional Washington wisdom may wonder whether McCarthy has the smarts and savvy to succeed as a leader in Trump’s Republican Party—much less return House Republicans to power. But underestimating him might be a risk. Few people understand better than McCarthy, who turned 54 last week, the challenge he faces, and if he thinks that people doubt his mojo, he’s not inclined to let it show. Just as he did when he led Republicans in the California State Assembly more than a decade ago, McCarthy has made sure that the sign outside his office suite reads not Minority Leader but the less modest Republican Leader, despite his party’s humbling loss of 40 seats in last fall’s midterms.
More than 70 percent of the members in his newly constituted Republican conference have never served in the minority, but McCarthy is not among them. He arrived in Washington 12 years ago, when his party had just lost its congressional majorities and was smarting under Nancy Pelosi’s first reign as speaker. “There was only 13 of us, the smallest class since 1914 in the Republican Party,” McCarthy remembers, “and I always felt like we could weather any storm.”
He then rose faster through the ranks of his party’s House leadership than any of his predecessors, and in 2010 was a principal architect of the GOP’s successful recapture of the majority.
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Just two years ago, the Democrats were in even worse shape than McCarthy is in now, because they’d lost the House, the Senate, and the White House. “They got passionate, they got motivated, and it forced them to change what they had done in the past, because it had failed enough,” McCarthy says.
Does the GOP now have the same opportunity? “Very much so. The question will be, will we allow it? And that’s what I’ve got to make sure we allow to happen.”
That won’t be easy, with the conservative House Freedom Caucus still skeptical of McCarthy’s ideological purity on the one hand, and many senior party strategists urging a more moderate appeal to minorities and swing voters on the other. Jack Pitney, a former House Republican policy adviser who is now a professor at Claremont McKenna College, notes that McCarthy’s predicament is especially difficult. “He is in the worst possible position for a congressional leader,” Pitney told me. “Being in the House minority, yet being in the president’s party, he’ll take all the blame for every bad thing that happens in national politics now, but being in the minority has absolutely no influence over legislation. When it comes to fundraising, he’s at a disadvantage. He has almost no power to reward or punish members.”