WASHINGTON — The son of a Bakersfield, Calif., firefighter, Representative Kevin McCarthy has hauled plenty of political hose to get where he is now, seemingly perched on the edge of real power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But he’s still facing competition, with Idaho Republican Raul Labrador’s late entry Friday into the House majority leader’s race.
Both men are running to replace Eric Cantor of Virginia, who was upset this week in a primary contest and will step down from the role of majority leader. With his three-day head start and highly organized whip operation, McCarthy is the odds-on favorite to win next week, after which his real work would begin.
“He’ll face the same challenges as Cantor: trying to keep the party together while having to allow it to be rolled on occasion when the alternative is shutting down the government or throwing global markets into a tizzy,” said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
Texas Republican Representative Pete Sessions dropped out late Thursday night, opening the door for the long-shot Labrador to enter the race from the right Friday morning. Tea party affiliates and other restive House Republicans were clamoring for an alternative to McCarthy, whom they view as an establishment candidate too closely aligned with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Labrador was among the 87 Republican freshmen elected to the House in a Tea Party wave in 2010. A 46-year-old Mormon who’s a father of five, Labrador would be the first Puerto Rican-born House majority leader if he’s elected.
“I want a House leadership that reflects the best of our conference,” Labrador said in a statement. “Americans don’t believe their leaders in Washington are listening, and now is the time to change that.”
FreedomWorks, a conservative political lobbying group allied with the Tea Party, launched an email petition drive supporting Labrador on Friday, saying he “won’t sell out to special interests and will fight to protect your constitutional rights.”
Campaign for Liberty, a group founded by Republican former Representative Ron Paul of Texas, is also endorsing Labrador’s candidacy. Paul ran for president under the Libertarian Party banner.
The number of votes Labrador pulls in next week’s secret ballot might be a measure of internal GOP dissension, though most expect the 233-member Republican caucus to formally elevate McCarthy.
McCarthy is currently the House majority whip, the No. 3 position in the House GOP hierarchy. If elected, the genial 49-year-old former businessman would become the first lawmaker from California’s sprawling Central Valley to hold the House’s No. 2 spot. The only Californian who’s vaulted higher is former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and ideological polar opposite with whom McCarthy nonetheless shares some political attributes.
McCarthy, like Pelosi, is a diligent builder of personal networks, a rememberer of birthdays and the political needs of colleagues. He builds the GOP team by inviting lawmakers to discuss their first concerts or their most embarrassing moments. The hallways in his first-floor Capitol office are adorned with a revolving set of members’ photographs. It’s a place to find late-night pizza.
Like Pelosi, who also served as her party’s whip, McCarthy has had to corral votes with fewer traditional tools at his disposal.
“Being whip now is different than with the whips in the past,” McCarthy acknowledged in an interview with McClatchy last year. “The country is different; the rules are different. It’s a different time.”
Like Pelosi, McCarthy has racked up endless frequent flier miles campaigning for others, who’ve reciprocated his loyalty. This election cycle alone, he’s visited 41 congressional districts, with more trips planned. And, like Pelosi, he’s a tireless fundraiser for his party.
That job goes with the territory. McCarthy has done nothing that previous Republicans whips haven’t done. Former Representatives Tom DeLay of Texas and Roy Blunt of Missouri, who’s now across the Capitol in the Senate, constantly crisscrossed the country to help build up the party’s strength and secure personal loyalty.
Since 2008, McCarthy has distributed more than $2.3 million to fellow Republicans through his leadership political action committee, records show. Through his overstuffed individual campaign account, which held $2.9 million in reserve as of mid-May, McCarthy has made additional contributions to candidates and party committees.
“He’s done a great job of recruiting candidates,” Nunes said, and “he’s made the trains run on time.”
-Michael Doyle and William Douglas
©2014 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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