WASHINGTON — Not so long ago Kevin McCarthy was working as an aide to his local congressman in hot, dusty Bakersfield, California. Now the genial 49-year-old is a new face of the GOP, selected by House Republicans as their majority leader after a whirlwind round of politicking prompted by last week's primary election upset of Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
McCarthy's lightning-fast ascent to the No. 2 House job in just his fourth term is a testament to his political skills and talent for forming and maintaining relationships. Now he has the daunting challenge of working to unite a fractious House Republican caucus that's still in upheaval after Cantor's loss, with the most conservative lawmakers smarting over McCarthy's quick rise.
"I'll make one promise: I will work every single day to make sure this conference has the courage to lead with the wisdom to listen," McCarthy said Thursday after his victory in the secret ballot elections.
McCarthy has served as majority whip, the No. 3 job, and will be replaced in that post by Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the chairman of a caucus of conservatives in the House. Scalise adds a Southern, red state voice to a GOP leadership team otherwise populated by establishment-aligned Republicans from the West Coast and Midwest.
"I'm looking forward to bringing a fresh new voice to our leadership table," Scalise said.
But some of the most conservative lawmakers questioned Scalise's bona fides and groused that the new team is much like the old one. That could spell troubles ahead in a caucus where conservative rebellions have become routine and McCarthy and other leaders are sometimes at a loss to quell them.
"People told us they wanted a significant change in our leadership team, they wanted us to pursue a more conservative agenda, and I don't think grass-roots Republicans are going to be satisfied," said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who supported McCarthy's opponent, tea party Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.