On Friday morning, John Boehner announced that he would be resigning from both his seat in Congress and his post as speaker of the House at the end of October. While his replacement has yet to be determined — and being orange and quick to cry is not a prerequisite — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, is widely viewed as the odds-on favorite. Here’s what you need to know about the man currently considered most likely to be third in line for the presidency come Thanksgiving:
1. Donors for some reason find him irresistible.
McCarthy rose from freshman backbencher to majority leader faster than anyone in the past century. When he was elected the House’s second-in-command in the summer of 2014, he’d yet to complete his fourth term in Congress. What makes McCarthy’s rapid ladder-climbing even more impressive is that the representative from Bakersfield, California, isn’t otherwise seen as a particularly gifted politician or deal-maker. He’s struck a relatively low profile both in right-wing media and in Congress, where his signature legislative cause is rolling back environmental regulations that give too much water to wildlife conservatories.
Instead of amassing a national following or legislative accomplishments, McCarthy propelled himself to the top on a wave of donor money. During the 2014 midterm cycle, McCarthy raised $10.5 million for Republican political committees. That aptitude for raking in campaign cash has allowed McCarthy to straddle the party’s Establishment and tea-party wings. Though a relative moderate in an increasingly reactionary conference, many of the party’s most strident conservatives owe their jobs to McCarthy. As the Los Angeles Times reported last summer:
“Many tea party-influenced members, who typically view the GOP as too prone to compromise and too attentive to the interests of big business rather than conservative, populist concerns, owe their seats in Congress to him. He recruited them. He raised money for them.”
2. He recommended amnesty for the undocumented.
McCarthy is where he is today only because Republicans in Virginia decided Eric Cantor was too soft on “illegals.” Cantor had given his party 13 years of service — three as majority leader when some libertarian economics professor defeated him by running to his (populist) right on immigration and banking. But while Cantor’s insufficient nativism cost him a chance at the speakership, McCarthy looks like he will attain the post despite having proposed straight-up amnesty for the undocumented. When asked about the House’s plan for comprehensive immigration reform in January of 2014, McCarthy told KBAK Eyewitness News, “The principles aren’t combined or written out yet, but in my personal belief, I think you’ll go with legal status…That it will allow you to work [and] pay your taxes.”
3. Kevin Spacey studied McCarthy while preparing for his role in House of Cards.
When Spacey was preparing for the first season of House of Cards, his character, Frank Underwood, was still just a lowly House majority whip — as was Kevin McCarthy. So to put himself into the head space of a sociopathic career politician, Spacey followed McCarthy around the Capitol for several days.
Spacey told Politico that he was particularly struck by one thing the real-life whip told him: “He actually said recently that, ‘If I could kill just one member of Congress, I’d never have to worry about another vote,’” Spacey said.
4. He won the lottery and then bought a bunch of sandwiches.
McCarthy’s story is one of a young entrepreneur lifting himself up by his bootstraps — after winning the California lottery. Shortly after graduating high school, McCarthy won $5,000 playing the state lotto, which he promptly funneled into a sandwich shop called Kevin O’s Deli. The Orange County Register noted that Kevin O’s was hip to the “toasted sub” trend years before Quiznos and Subway. That disruptive innovation helped McCarthy earn enough money selling “Turkey Supremes” to pay his way through Cal State Bakersfield.
5. Right-wing media already loves to hate him.
A central role of the speaker in the modern GOP is to serve as a flammable effigy every time conservatives are forced to confront the reality of divided government. When right-wing radio hosts sit down to tell the story of the latest outrageous compromise, a cowardly “cuckservative” in the leadership will always make for a better villain than “the system of checks and balances on which our government was founded.” This fact was no small part of why John Boehner decided to opt for early retirement. And it’s why right-wing pundits have already cast McCarthy as the next great traitor.
“Kevin McCarthy is Eric Cantor with ten less IQ points,” right-wing radio host Mark Levin told Breitbart this morning. “The Republican establishment never learned their lesson after Cantor … They replaced Cantor with McCarthy, who is a wheeler and dealer — he is not a principled conservative … My concern now is that they will do the same thing.”
It’s possible that Levin could help marshal a grassroots backlash strong enough to thwart McCarthy’s bid for speaker. But just a week ago, tea partiers were planning to elevate McCarthy themselves, after ousting Boehner in a coup. The truth is, if you’re a House Republican, you can either die a hero or rise high enough to see yourself become the villain.