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Who Is Kevin McCarthy, House Republicans' New Top Leader?


While Democrats have spent their post-midterm election time debating whether or not Nancy Pelosi will lead their new majority, Republicans quickly and quietly elected their leader. Kevin McCarthy will lead the GOP in the House when the new Congress gets underway in January. McCarthy's rise to power has been fueled in part because of his close relationship with President Trump. But in his home state of California, Republicans are struggling, holding onto just seven of the state's 53 House seats this past election, the fewest in more than 70 years.

Mark Z. Barabak covers state and national politics for the Los Angeles Times. He joins me now. Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: So for people who aren't familiar with Kevin McCarthy, tell us about McCarthy's background, like, where he's from in the state and what kind of Republican he is.

BARABAK: He comes from what remains the most Republican, the reddest part of California there is. He comes from Kern County, the Central Valley, the southern part of the Central Valley. He came up through the political ranks as a young Republican working for a longtime congressman from Bakersfield, Bill Thomas. Went on to Sacramento, where he served in the leadership, in the Legislature as a freshman, has been one of these political phenoms really throughout his career. Came to Congress and entered the leadership there and was very instrumental in recruiting and helping Republicans take back the majority in 2010.

CORNISH: And yet when looking for a House speaker after John Boehner was going away, Republicans went to Paul Ryan. So help us understand how Kevin McCarthy has kind of navigated his way to the top.

BARABAK: Well, Kevin McCarthy said something that was rather imprudent. He was talking about the investigation into Benghazi, the deaths of some U.S. diplomats at the outpost in Libya, and spoke of it in the context of hurting Hillary Clinton's poll ratings. That was a gaffe, you could say. He was telling the truth, but nevertheless it didn't help his cause. And so he was passed over, as you suggest, for Paul Ryan. And then he worked his way back up in large part by attaching himself very early on to Donald Trump. He was one of the president's earliest supporters.

When a lot of Republicans were leery, Kevin McCarthy looked at it through the prism of, how would it help members? He said Trump was exciting a lot of energy on the Republican side, and that could help Republicans win House seats. So he was successful by tying himself to President Trump, which was great for Kevin McCarthy and his ascension to the leadership and not so great for his fellow Republicans back home.

CORNISH: Let's talk more about that. Does he bear some blame for his party's losses in California?

BARABAK: Yes, I think you could say so. He commanded tremendous loyalty within the Republican delegation. Several of the members he recruited, several of them he knew personally. And it's not a great look if you're the leader of Republicans in the House to have your delegation going sideways. And so he got a lot of members to vote for - virtually all of them voted for a tax bill that could be very injurious to California and hurt a lot of folks by raising their taxes, by capping the deduction for state and local taxes and mortgage interest.

And he also got the entire delegation to go along voting to repeal Obamacare, which is very popular in California. Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, if you prefer - very popular California. And neither of those stood - those members - in good stead with voters. And many of them paid a price in November.

CORNISH: At the end of the day, what's his skill set? What makes him distinct, and what should we keep an eye out for?

BARABAK: Well, he's a political animal. And I say that as a political hack. That to me is not an insult. He's a political animal. He's not someone who came up through the policy ranks. He's someone with a granular knowledge of congressional districts around the country. He's a very prodigious fund raiser. So I think that's going to be goal number one, two and three for Kevin McCarthy, is what can he do to position Republicans to take back the House in 2020?

CORNISH: And meanwhile, in California, can he do anything to help his home state Republicans?

BARABAK: Well, I'm not in the position of giving advice, but I think the obvious thing would be to let folks show some distance from the president. President Trump is not at all popular. California is the beating heart of the resistance to President Trump in fact. And I think - I mean, there's a lot of soul searching going on, as you can imagine, among Republicans in California. And I think one thing that he could do - and again, I'm not giving advice - but is allowing some members, candidates - at this point there'll be seven members running for re-election and a lot of candidates - put some distance between themselves and the president, who as I said is extraordinarily unpopular in California.

CORNISH: That's Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times. Thank you so much for talking with us.

BARABAK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.