As a member of the California legislature, McCarthy was also a caucus leader.
State Republicans who watched him in that job say he was a savant at cementing deep connections with his colleagues; a prodigious fundraiser with keen political instincts; a politician with unbridled, although sometimes unfocused, enthusiasm; and a hands on manager — too much so, some say — with a willingness to innovate.
In both cases, McCarthy also rose quickly through the ranks.
McCarthy rocketed to the top even faster in California, upon winning a seat in the state assembly in 2002.
Thanks in part to California’s term limits law, McCarthy, then only 37, was elected by his peers to serve a Assembly minority leader immediately after he first won a seat in the state assembly in 2002. As the minority leader, the Bakersfield, Calif., native had sole authority over his caucus’ political, policy and campaign operations.
The post also made McCarthy a central figure in what back then was an annual battle over passage of the state budget, negotiated by the four legislative leaders and the governor -- a group referred to in Sacramento as “the big five.” In that capacity, McCarthy had the power to block Democratic demands for tax increases, and did so, even under pressure as the budget ran days and even months late, threatening the critical services.
McCarthy has also moved quickly through the ranks in Congress.
Outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tapped him for chief deputy minority whip two years after the McCarthy was elected to the House in 2006. He was elected majority whip in 2010 after the GOP won control of the chamber.
Rep. John Campbell, a Republican who was McCarthy’s policy deputy when he served under him in the California assembly, said the majority whip would bring a different style to the majority leader’s office, despite his close association with Cantor. Campbell, a pretty staunch conservative who is retiring at year’s end, plans to vote for McCarthy on Thursday, when leadership elections are scheduled to choose Cantor’s successor.
“He also, I think, is good in public and with the you all — with the press … And I would argue that he’ll probably be a little bit better than Cantor at that,” Campbell said in an interview. “Taking on the other side of things, Cantor is a pretty deep policy guy, that is not McCarthy’s strength, he’s more of a political guy. So, he’ll need some beefing up in that area.”
McCarthy is facing nominal opposition in his bid for majority leader from Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican who was elected in 2010 and has butted heads with leadership. McCarthy is expected to win easily. Here's what some California Republicans had to say about McCarthy's tenure as the GOP leader in the state assembly.
Consultant Rob Stutzman, a senior advisor to then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger:
“He was very protective of his members and a smart policy guy. Any knock on him that he doesn’t know policy well is false. He dreams politics at night, but don’t mistake that for thinking he doesn’t know policy well.
“He saw political pressure points with great nuance. He could take on Bill Clinton in a game of triangulation. He brought youth to the GOP in Sacramento. It was refreshing and needed. And, he did not kowtow to Arnold. He was not a sycophant. There were some times of tension when Arnold was jamming the GOP caucus. Kevin would get angry with Arnold when he needed to.”
California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte, who served as state senate minority leader during McCarthy’s run as assembly minority leader:
"Kevin McCarthy is a market guy. He believes in competition. We got to compete to see who was the preeminent Republican leader. I never had to really work to stay ahead of the assembly republican leader, because there were a number of them during my tenure. But McCarthy made me work, because he was such a good republican assembly leader. If he did a training program for staff, then I wanted to do one that was better than the one that he did. ... He made me a better Senate Republican leader."
A veteran GOP operative: “He delegated policy decision making to others. I suspect he did this because he was minority leader and had little policy impact except during the budget, especially when Schwarzenegger was there and Kevin had juice. He focused more where the minority could be seen as a viable option and pick up seats. I wish we still had a California Republican leader who would attempt to do just that.
“He was politically shrewd; previous Republican legislators tried to legislate, Kevin tried to pick up seats and defend his members. He had vision. Kevin created district fly-ins like in D.C., where district office staff flew in for a two-day seminar. Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz were speakers. This ended once Kevin left Sacramento. He was a prolific fundraiser without being sleazy about it. He wouldn't stalk lobbyists or be passive aggressive if he didn't get his way. Kevin would ask and move on; pretty classy and it still worked.
“He understood the need for a farm team and recruited solid Republicans to match the district. We saw this with the Young Guns too.”
A former Republican legislative aide:
“The one thing he did which rubbed people the wrong way, was, when he walked in the door and became leader, he said, ‘I’m going to pick up eight or 10 seats [in the 2004 elections,] and he set bar so high, there was no where to go but down. Usually when you do something like that, you under promise and over deliver. We lost seats that year … I think that’s one thing he’s learned from.”
A Republican political operative:
“It will be really interesting to see how he’ll be as Majority leader. Just as he was in California, he is very hands-on, doesn’t delegate enough to staff. He’s been that way in the whip’s office and I think he’ll be that way as Majority Leader. He takes a more hands-on approach than other folks. Will he delegate? I think he needs to.
“His K Street group [in Washington] is very similar to his K Street group in Sacramento. He had a lot of [lobbyists] and outside people that were on his team and had his back. So, even when things went sideways, he had people out there touting his abilities. He’s a great fundraiser — he was always there for his members in Sacramento [and as a House leader.] He’ll continue to do that as majority leader.”