Comparing their individual voting records, Virginia’s Cantor is arguably more conservative than California’s McCarthy. But the two close friends and longtime political allies approach House leadership with different personal and governing styles.
Cantor lorded over House Republican policy and legislation with an eye toward maneuvering the GOP for national success in 2016 and beyond. Chairmen of influential committees have occasionally chafed at this, feeling as though their power was usurped by the majority leader's office. And insurgent conservatives, though personally on good terms with Cantor, have often felt minimized as the Virginian resisted their agenda and pursued legislation they opposed.
McCarthy, as majority whip, has preferred a lighter touch. The No. 3 ranking Republican has taken heat for his approach at times, enduring criticism from some quarters that his whip operation was insufficiently aggressive at coercing votes. However, McCarthy’s collaborative approach could make him a more effective No. 2, diffusing pressure that has been building among a broad cross-section of the rank and file under the current leadership team.
“He’s a listener,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
McCarthy, 49, was elected House majority leader Thursday by his Republican peers in a secret ballot contest, easily defeating Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, who is affiliated with the Tea Party. McCarthy formally assumes the post on July 31, when Cantor, 51, is scheduled to step down in the wake of his surprising loss in a June 10 GOP primary. Working with the speaker, the majority leader runs the House floor and serves as a top political fundraiser.
Few could have predicted McCarthy would become majority leader five months prior to the Republican conference’s regularly scheduled, post-midterm election leadership elections. But when opportunity knocked, McCarthy was ready. Over the years, the fourth-term congressman has perfected the art of winning political leadership elections. In the 1990s, he was elected chairman of the California Young Republicans and Young Republican National Federation; in 2002, minority leader of the California state assembly; and in 2010, U.S. House majority whip.
In each instance, McCarthy advanced through a combination of hard work and keen political instincts. Republican lawmakers and political operatives who have worked with him say his interpersonal skills are among the best they’ve ever seen, as is his political weathervane. McCarthy cultivates relationships and maintains them assiduously. He understands his colleagues’ personal politics, and that of their districts. Above all, he listens to what they want and tries to deliver.
The Republican committee chairmen, though concerned about what Cantor’s departure means for the future of the party and the conference, privately welcome the change in leadership style. Some conservatives have predictably groused that McCarthy’s promotion was exactly the wrong reaction to Cantor’s ouster. But some senior Republican aides believe the insurgents will come to appreciate McCarthy’s leadership, and that the conference will be more unified.
“He’ll be a good majority leader. He’s in touch with his conference and he’s in touch with his district,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant in California who worked as a senior adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when McCarthy served as the state assembly minority leader. “He is very protective of his members.”
Leading the diverse, restive House Republican conference will be challenging, even if McCarthy executes a conciliatory, bottom-up approach. Cantor, once a darling of the conservative movement, worked as hard as anyone to help elect the Tea Party class of 2010. But the credibility he earned turned out to be worthless, with conservatives resisting his strategy to avoid a government shutdown over Obamacare and pursue legalization for illegal immigrant children, to name two issues.
Critics have long charged that McCarthy’s political skills are undercut by his inability to master and drive policy, while arguing that he has been able to maintain the support of his colleagues because he’s hasn’t been responsible for forcing them to make tough decisions or accept compromises. (McCarthy’s supporters vehemently disagree.) Eventually, Congress will be faced with passing another federal budget, or raising the debt ceiling — or possibly passing health care legislation.
Rep. John Fleming, who supported McCarthy over Labrador for majority leader, said members want a leadership team that is more accessible and allows more bills from the rank and file to receive a floor vote. “He has a real good feel for where everybody is,” the Louisiana Republican said. “He knows what we’re thinking before we even think it. That helps him in his calculation to put a bill on the floor that would be solidly supported.”