Dan Morain

Studying Kevin McCarthy’s rules

Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens at right as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield speaks last week. McCarthy will seek to replace Boehner when he leaves office this month.
Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens at right as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield speaks last week. McCarthy will seek to replace Boehner when he leaves office this month. The Associated Press

After a campaign stop in his hometown of Bakersfield a few years ago, Rep. Kevin McCarthy told me some of the guiding principles for his success. Rule No. 1: Every election is won before it begins.

He abides by it. Other than in his first Assembly campaign in 2002, McCarthy has had only token opposition. Now as he runs in the most important race of his life, the one to replace John Boehner as speaker, McCarthy faces only a long-shot challenge from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

In an institution where seniority is golden, McCarthy’s rapid ascent seems improbable, unless you know the guy. He has not yet served a decade in Congress. But he became Republican leader at the end of his first year in the Assembly, 2003.

No one would mistake McCarthy for some Ivy League smoothie. His degrees come from California State University, Bakersfield. Sophisticates snicker at his tortured syntax. But he tripped over his tongue far more often when I first met him a dozen years ago.

As speaker, McCarthy could leave cable appearances to others, and focus on what his colleagues want more than anything – to get re-elected. For that they need money. That’s his forte. He has raised $31.6 million into his various congressional campaign accounts since 2006, and $3 million more during his Assembly days. And he doles it out liberally to Republicans in need.

Sacramento campaign consultant Wayne Johnson tells of watching McCarthy work the phones at the National Republican Congressional Committee office in Washington a few years back, eagerly urging a donor to show up at a freshman’s fundraiser. Few pols like that kind of work. But McCarthy happily plunged in, all in the service of that rule about the preludes to elections.

“That’s why he is going to lead,” Johnson said. “He wins.”

Although this is the bluest of states, McCarthy’s red district is far removed from the other California of Malibu and Mill Valley. Democrats raise money from Streisand and Spielberg. McCarthy tapped the late Bakersfield minstrel Buck Owens.

Since he started running for office in 2001, McCarthy has raised all of $39,800 from people who list their addresses in Beverly Hills. By my count, Bakersfield has accounted for $2.76 million of his money, second only to the $5 million he has raised from denizens of Washington, D.C., though the Beltway crowd is relatively new to McCarthy’s party.

After the 2006 campaign event, over lunch at his favorite bowling alley coffee shop, McCarthy told me another of his rules: Be in the room, because decisions will be made whether you’re there or not.

McCarthy failed to follow that commandment in 2006, when, as Assembly minority leader, he played no role on probably the biggest single bill of his Sacramento tenure, Assembly Bill 32, the legislation that is forcing deep reductions in greenhouse gases.

It probably served McCarthy’s purpose. He understands his oil-rich district. There is no political correctness in his fundraising. Petroleum producers have lubricated McCarthy’s campaigns with no less than $645,000.

Perhaps not coincidentally, McCarthy’s district has some of the nation’s filthiest air. But when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its latest plan last week to reduce pollutants, McCarthy issued a statement saying “nothing will stop the EPA from its attempts to destroy jobs, drag down our economy, and impose its centralized standards despite opposition around the country.” Don’t be surprised to see the House under McCarthy take a swipe at the Clean Air Act.

McCarthy would be speaker while Nancy Pelosi is minority leader. Some people might hope the pairing would give California extra clout. Not likely. The two couldn’t be more different. At 50, he is young enough to be Pelosi’s son, though she might disinherit him if he were.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, 57, a Democrat who represents downtown Los Angeles, is closer in age to McCarthy. As the fourth-ranking Democrat, Becerra could rise when Pelosi steps down, which means he and McCarthy could serve in leadership for many years.

Becerra says McCarthy has “always been friendly.” They worked together to help smooth the way for the Special Olympics to take place in Los Angeles this summer. But they’ve never bonded over, say, beers. Nor do they see eye-to-eye on much of anything. Immigration, in particular, is a point of disagreement.

More than any other segment, McCarthy depends on farming interests for campaign money, at least $1.5 million. He also prospects in the Silicon Valley. Farmers and tech moguls long have sought an immigration overhaul.

“If any speaker can forge a thoughtful immigration solution, it is leader McCarthy,” Carl Guardino, chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, told me in an email.

“We’ll see,” Becerra said. As speaker, McCarthy’s constituency would include representatives of states where voters view immigration, legal and illegal, as a threat, whether their states are affected or not.

McCarthy has placed politics over California’s interests before. For example, he took a leadership role in the effort to dismantle the Export-Import Bank, which provides loans to U.S. companies that do business abroad. It is short-sighted, especially in this state, which depends on exports.

McCarthy took his stand as Rep. Jeb Hensarling, one of the more conservative Republicans from Texas, campaigned against the bank, contending that it was an example of crony capitalism. Perhaps Hensarling persuaded McCarthy. Or maybe the speaker-to-be was trying to neutralize an issue being raised by a rival.

Back to Rule No. 1: Win the campaign before it begins. Whether that rule will help California is another question, and remains to be seen.