GREENVILLE, S.C. — In a span of just 24 hours late last week, Rep. Kevin McCarthy drove 200 miles along the back roads of the western Carolinas to deliver five speeches on behalf of four House GOP nominees, before perhaps 300 of the party faithful.
McCarthy’s road show attracted scant public attention, but it served several important political purposes. The campaign visits advanced the cause of picking up a couple of House seats in November, but just as significant, they helped spotlight his congressional district spadework in pursuit of a potential House GOP majority.
It’s a savvy approach that has marked his legislative career in Sacramento, Calif., and Washington, where in both cases his rapid ascent into leadership was propelled by an unusually firm grasp of the inside game —understanding his colleagues’ districts and the mechanics of building a majority, even if he’s never actually been part of one.
In only his second term, the 45-year-old McCarthy holds several leadership hats, as he quickly reminds his audiences. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) named him to head Americans Speaking Out, which plans to release an updated version of the party’s contract with voters in late September. He was also tapped by Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to serve as his chief deputy whip, and he serves as the National Republican Congressional Committee’s vice chairman for recruitment.
McCarthy’s recess travels aren’t all that different from those of top House leaders in both parties, though, as he readily admits, he tends to draw a smaller crowd than more senior leaders. The Republican has the advantage of traveling light — with no security detail, and perhaps a staffer — in this case, his driver was Freddy Barnes, his junior House aide and the namesake son of the Washington-based conservative commentator.
The district visits are part of House GOP leaders’ close collaboration with their candidates — many of whom are first-timers, unfamiliar with campaign rigors — but in McCarthy’s case, his more flexible scheduling typically permits more time and informal contacts during visits. The candidates visited by McCarthy voiced gratitude for his attention, and confidence that he would help them to unify their local party, especially after contentious primaries, and generate grass-roots enthusiasm for their campaigns.
“Once candidates are selected, I talk with them often in phone calls. I ask how things are going. You encourage people to run, and don’t abandon them later. I talk to five to ten candidates each day,” said McCarthy.
All of it could prove invaluable to his leadership prospects in the event the GOP wins a majority — an outcome that the Bakersfield, Calif., Republican exudes optimism about, though he expresses caution about predicting victory.
Here in Greenville, local prosecutor Trey Gowdy said McCarthy reached out to him shortly after he defeated six-term Rep. Bob Inglis in a June GOP primary runoff.
“He was fantastic. We could have talked all day, for example, about how to be an effective legislator,” Gowdy said prior to McCarthy’s appearance in the boardroom of a local law firm before approximately 40 community and business leaders. “This makes it easier for me to convince other citizens that we will have a different kind of leadership in Washington.” In this solidly Republican district, Gowdy is a cinch to win in November.
At an enthusiastic campaign rally the previous evening with more than 100 backers, Jeff Miller — who faces sophomore Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) in the state’s western-most district — introduced McCarthy as “everything we want in Washington. … He is someone I will lean on heavily for advice and guidance.”
McCarthy, who boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of most House districts and the contenders in this year’s battleground contests, serves as an intermediary between the candidates and GOP headquarters. Soon after his two campaign stops with Miller, he phoned other NRCC leaders to share his reaction.
Because Shuler has a huge fundraising lead, party strategists and political pundits have not listed Miller among the top GOP targets. But McCarthy last week talked up Miller’s campaign skills, and a recent fundraising boost from his enthusiastic backers.
With Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), McCarthy first met Miller more than a year ago. “It would be wonderful to be in the top focus” of the NRCC, said a hopeful Miller.
McCarthy’s initial North Carolina stop was a more sedate luncheon at Charlotte’s swanky downtown City Club on behalf of Harold Johnson, who is challenging freshman Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.) in what both parties view as a swing district. Although the roughly 20 participants barely filled two tables, they featured several members of the city’s elite, including top officers of BB&T bank, ex-Mayor Pat McCrory, and former five-term Rep. Robin Hayes, whom Kissell defeated to win the seat in 2008.
Like Miller, whose family has run a local dry cleaning business for nearly 100 years, Johnson is a first-time candidate who is well known in the Charlotte area as a former broadcaster and civic booster.
In early recruitment visits to the district, which extends east to Fayetteville, McCarthy said that he met many interested local figures and got to know the district well.
McCrory, who was Charlotte mayor for 14 years and narrowly lost for governor in 2008, was McCarthy’s first choice. “Kevin is a good salesman. It was hard for me to say no,” McCrory said. “But after a tough race for governor, and because I am likely to run again, I was reluctant to run for the House.”
Instead, McCrory became an early booster of Johnson, with “his incredible energy and connection to the district.” Republicans hope to highlight the contrast to the low-profile Kissell, who — like Shuler — has voted for some of the Democratic agenda but opposed health reform.
At a breakfast rally with 3rd District GOP nominee Jeff Duncan in Anderson, S.C., outgoing GOP Rep. Gresham Barrett said that McCarthy’s appearance served two purposes. “Having Kevin here is a wonderful signal that Jeff Duncan will be a presence in Washington,” he said, noting that it promotes party unity and a focus on the November election in the strongly Republican state. “The public is looking for candidates to right the ship.”
For his part, McCarthy also has encouraged likely congressional newcomers such as Duncan and Gowdy to assist challengers in more difficult contests — something McCarthy himself did in 2006 when he parceled out cash to Republican candidates across the country even as he was running to win his first term in Congress.
Gowdy “can do a lot of things to help other candidates to step forward,” he told the Greenville audience.
Before his campaign stops in the Carolinas, McCarthy spent three days making appearances for five candidates in Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee. His whirlwind travels and constant dealings with prospective members of the large incoming freshman class have spurred speculation about his own aspirations; some contend that he likely would run for majority whip if Republicans take control of the House. Such reports have caused internal tensions because of the possibility that NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) might also seek the whip post.
For his part, McCarthy dismissed the scuttlebutt. “I am not a candidate for a leadership position, and I haven’t decided to run. There is a time for that. This election is too important to screw up with leadership elections.”
For now, he insisted, he is seeking to grow the party’s base and he voices frustration that his internal whip count stops at 178 members.
“Plus,” he noted, “it makes me a better member to know the members and their districts.”