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Can Kevin McCarthy control Congress?

Episode Summary

California Republican Kevin McCarthy is likely to be the next speaker of the House if his party regains control of the chamber. What drives the Bakersfield politician?

Episode Notes

The results of the midterm elections are still being tabulated, but it looks like California Congressman Kevin McCarthy is likely to be the next speaker of the House if the Republican Party gains control. McCarthy has tied himself to former President Trump and all that comes with that affiliation, but what does the Bakersfield Republican really stand for, and how is he most likely to wield his new power?

Today, as part of our coverage of the 2022 midterms, what the early election results say about the power shift in Congress, the election in 2024, and the Republican leader at the center of it all.

Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guest: L.A. Times senior writer Jeffrey Fleishman

More reading:

Ambition keeps him loyal to Donald Trump. But what does Kevin McCarthy stand for?

2022 U.S. midterm elections: Live results

Democrats defy history with control of Congress still up for grabs

Episode Transcription

McCarthy: How have they done? Are you better off? What has two years of one-party Democrat rule in Washington given us?

Gustavo: That was one of former President Donald Trump's biggest allies – Congressmember Kevin McCarthy. He's a Republican giant in deep blue California and campaigned for new direction for Washington during these past midterms. And the result? He could be setting the agenda in Congress going forward.

I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to the Times Essential Views from the L.A. Times. It's Wednesday, November 9th, 2022.

Today, as part of our coverage of the 2022 midterms: the results, what they say about the power shift in Congress, the election in 2024 and the Republican leader at the center of it all.

My colleague Jeff Leishman wrote a profile of Kevin McCarthy. Jeff, welcome to The Times.

Jeff: Thanks. Good to be here.

Gustavo: So now the ballots are closed but the results are unclear, there’s gonna be weeks probably of counting ballots. What pushed Republicans so close to a possible victory?

Jeff: Well, a huge backlash against the Biden agenda. I mean, you had a real grassroots conservative movement within the House and across the country.

clip: McCarthy says Democrat policies have forced Republicans to ask people, Can you afford it?

McCarthy: Can I afford to fill up my tank? Can I afford the food? The milk? Can I find baby formula?

Jeff: You had inflation. You had all these factors cascading against the Biden administration.

McCarthy: In the past two years, Joe Biden has launched an assault on the soul of America, on its people, on its laws, on its most sacred values.

Jeff: And you still had former President Trump, who's still a factor in Republican politics, and all that coalesced together.

Gustavo: What can we expect for the future of Congress?

Jeff: I think you're going to have questions on everything from voting rights, abortion rights.

This is going to be just a complete coming after anything that Biden stands for and, and to derail his presidency for the next two years. I don't see much in the art of bipartisanship coming out of this. 

Gustavo: How much of a role did McCarthy play for Republicans in this past election cycle?

Jeff: A huge role. He was out there raising money in nearly 50 states. He was placating the hard right-wing faction of the party.

McCarthy: You have never been more worried, more alarmed by the direction of our country. Yet they tell you everything is fine.

Jeff: At the same time, it's important to remember McCarthy and the leadership brought in the most diverse list of House candidates the Republicans had ever fielded, including 33 Latinos, 28 Black Americans, 13 Asian Americans and three Native Americans. So he, to his credit, he saw where the country was going and realized if the Republicans were gonna be a viable voice in the future, they had to diversify. And it goes to his many straddling abilities. And some people think it's gonna catch up with him. But so far, that's where we are.

Gustavo: And you wrote in your profile that he's a master at the machinery of electoral politics.  How strategic was he in getting all these Republican victories across the country?

Jeff: He is incredibly good at that. I mean, McCarthy has an awful lot of critics on a lot of issues. A lot of people think he's sold his soul to Trump and he doesn't have any principles. But one thing he is good at is his fundraising ability and his understanding down to the minute level of precinct politics across the country of, of who's running, how they're running and what the issues are. And he's traveled to almost 50 states before the end of this year to do that. So he's targeted people.

McCarthy: I ask everybody across this country: Could you afford to give up one month of your wages? One month of your wages. The sad part is these Democratic policies has already taken one month of your wages.

Jeff: He's targeted races. He's poured money into it.

McCarthy: If you would trust us and give us the ability to take a new direction for this country, what the commitment is is a plan – a plan for a new direction.

Jeff: Since the 2016 cycle, he's raised nearly $118 million. That compares with Trump raising for Republican candidates $32 million. So McCarthy as a rainmaker is pretty big in party politics, and that's what's allowed him to be where he is ‘cause he doesn't really have much of an ideological agenda.

Gustavo: Yeah. What is it about him, his personality or his thinking, that makes him so successful at what he does?

Jeff: He's very congenial. He's the guy that people like, some people find a falseness in that, but other people find it a genuine sort of connection with people, and I think he's able to use that into ingratiating himself to people getting money. He's very good with donors, he's very good with small businesses and billionaires and corporations, and he's acquired that sense of knowing how to navigate the landscape that one needs to get money. When Kevin Spacey was researching the role for his duplicitous congressman in “House of Cards,” he shadowed Kevin McCarthy.

HOUSE OF CARDS CLIP: As for me, I'm just the lowly House majority whip. I keep things moving in a Congress choked by pettiness and lassitude. My job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving, but I won't have to be a plumber much longer.

Jeff: Mainly because McCarthy really knew the intricacies of how Washington worked.

HOUSE OF CARDS CLIP: I've done my time. I've backed the right man.

Jeff: Anyone who saw that show “House of Cards,” Frank Underwood, Spacey's character, knew how to manipulate the levers of power in Congress and other places. And McCarthy is just as skilled at that, and perhaps that's why Spacey wanted to shadow him.

Gustavo: Damn. Did Kevin like his supposed depiction?

Jeff: I don't know if he liked the depiction, but he certainly liked the limelight, ha ha, of being shadowed by an actor and going into a big series.

Gustavo: The one thing that most Californians know about McCarthy is that he's from Bakersfield, and Bakersfield's like a place apart from the rest of California: very red, oil, Central Valley, all of that. How has Bakersfield shaped him?

Jeff: Well, Bakersfield, I mean, you come up into the Valley and there's field dust blowing and there's farm fields and there's pumpjacks, and there's just this very hard terrain and it can be harsh, and people have learned to live with it. The elements have become part of life there, part of the economies.

McCarthy: They elected a guy who is a grandson of a cattle rancher, the son of a firefighter. Only in America do you get that opportunity.

Jeff: He didn't grow up wealthy. He played for the Bakersfield Drillers football team, he wasn’t a standout, but he played. So he was part of the mix in a town that was always boom and bust in a lot of ways, based on oil and gas and farming. And I think there's a lot of perseverance that has come from that he's picked up from his native town, and he said one time he wasn't as smart as a lot of people; he had to work harder. And I think a lot of ethos of that comes from Bakersfield of sort of this town that's always trying to push ahead and, and facing adversity and then coming back from it.

Gustavo: And I'm sure that's one of the many reasons why voters keep electing him again and again.

Jeff: And it's really conservative there. I mean, Kevin McCarthy also speaks to the conservatism that exists around the, the farmers and the oil and gas people.

McCarthy: I'm a conservative, I believe in the idea of freedom and liberty, but more importantly, look at my voting background. I voted against bailing out Wall Street. I’ve never voted for a tax increase. I come through the grassroots.

Gustavo: What about his critics? What do his critics say about McCarthy? 

Jeff: His critics wonder if he's become not the Kevin we sent to Congress back in 2006, but too Washington fined, if that makes sense. Has he become too much an establishment politician away from his roots?  And I think even though he'll probably continue to win there for a while because of the political makeup, there's also questioning where his allegiances are now as he's grown in the party and become a national figure.

Gustavo: Yeah, that's interesting because a criticism you just told me seems to come from the conservative wing, so how difficult is it for McCarthy to satisfy the different factions within his own party?

Jeff: It's increasingly difficult. I mean, people from Bakersfield to Ohio to across the country feel that he's conservative, but he doesn't have enough fealty to Donald Trump. I mean, the more liberal factions in Bakersfield will say, well, he’s not attuned to the real immigration and other issues here that play out in Bakersfield and in that part of California. So he's straddling all kinds of different things. He's trying to keep holding together to keep his leadership position.

Gustavo: Why does he want this power? Why has he always sought it?

Jeff: It's all about power. It's a good word. It's all about power. He believes that if the Republicans are in power, they can stop the Democrats from moving an overly liberal agenda through the country, and they can put the brakes on it. But what do you do with that power? And that is the question I think a lot of people are asking. OK, if Kevin McCarthy gets power or has power, what is he going to do with it? What is the Republican vision for the country outside of returning to the basic conservative ideals of, of lower taxes, tougher on immigration and doing things like that. That's fine, a lot of people say, but how do you articulate that and what do you really stand for?

Gustavo: More after the break.

Gustavo: Jeff, so how did McCarthy get to his current position that he has in Congress right now? His power? Like how was he at the beginning when he entered, and how did he get to this place?

Jeff: He came in like he did when he was a California assemblyman. He came in wanting to be a rising star. He, along with Rep. Ryan and Representative Cantor were known as the young guns when they came in.

Gustavo: They even created a TV commercial, selling a book with that name, branding themselves as a feature of the Republican Party.

clip: Together they are ready to make history. Together they are the young guns, innovative, energetic, forging new solutions. One book…

Jeff: McCarthy came in in 2006. By 2010, these three guys were designing a thing to derail the Obama administration and, and that agenda. And they were about, uh, dismantling that, and he was known as the strategist among those three. He's not in idealogue, he doesn't have a great vision, but he knows strategy and he knows how to deploy troops and get things done. He's big on rules and procedures, he knows the intricacies of how the House works. And so by using that  he’s become invaluable to Republicans even though a lot of Republicans, the moderates, say he's too conservative, the conservatives say he is not conservative enough, but he brings money and organization to the table, which is a lot of things politicians don't like to do, but he'll do it.

Gustavo: So was being the minority leader, having this position of leadership for the national GOP, was it something that McCarthy was always seeking?

Jeff: Yes. McCarthy's been on a tack since he came to Congress in 2006 to become House speaker, a position he almost had in 2015 when John Boehner was pushed aside by the tea party element, and McCarthy also faced the blowback for that because he was supposed to be speaker. The Republicans went into a lunch and he was supposed to be coronated and he came out and withdrew.

McCarthy: I think there's something to be said for us to unite. We probably need a fresh face. I'll stay on as majority leader, but the one thing I found in talking to everybody: If we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that.

Gustavo: One of the big things McCarthy has dealt with is his relationship with former President Trump. Trump famously called him “My Kevin.” What's their current relationship status?

Jeff: That is like an ever-spinning roulette of strange emotions. I mean, they're close, they're not close. It depends on Trump. If Trump feels that McCarthy's giving him enough devotion, he loves him. If he's not, he was very mad at McCarthy right after the January 6th insurrection when he didn't feel McCarthy came to his aid right away and he was really lambasted McCarthy in public and in private and that which forced McCarthy to fly down to Mar-a-Largo a couple weeks later to kind of patch that up.

McCarthy has always known, at least when Trump came on the scene, that Trump was a lodestar of the Republican Party, and if he wanted power he had to attach himself to Trump. And he has done that at the expense of what a lot of people who knew him years ago when he was a California assemblyman saying he sold his soul.

But even in selling his soul, if you take that version, it's like a whack-a-mole kind of thing. Trump just keeps whacking him and then loving him and then whacking him, but they somehow have worked out this relationship where they're mutually beneficial to one another. 

Both men really believe they have the power to persuade and bring people to their way of thinking, and so they've aligned through opportunity and circumstance.

Gustavo: You mentioned that McCarthy had to fly down to Mar-a-Lago right after the January 6th insurrection. So how did McCarthy respond to the congressional hearings on that and Trump's role in the insurrection?

Jeff: McCarthy was in the Capitol when that happened. He fled the Capitol. There was fear. He, he experienced what everyone else did. In the immediate hours and day after January 6th, McCarthy came out on the House floor and condemned the attacks and everything else.

McCarthy: Let me be clear: Last week's violent attack on the Capitol was undemocratic, un-American and criminal. Violence is never a legitimate form of protest.

Jeff: And he said Trump bears some responsibility. Then as the days went on, in private recordings, we heard that he said what Trump did was atrocious.

McCarthy: Yeah, but what the president did is atrocious and totally wrong.

Jeff: In the early days of that, when some of the centrist billionaire donors and some more moderate Republicans like Cheney were saying, OK, now's the time we can dump this guy, we can get rid of Trump and move back to conservative politics, but without the sideshow of Donald Trump,

Liz Cheney: I'm gonna be very focused on working to ensure that we do everything we can, um, not to elect election deniers.

Jeff: McCarthy was inclined that way for a while. Then a couple of days went by, he said Trump should resign.

McCarthy: And it would be my recommendation he should resign. Um, I mean, that would be my take, but I don't think he would take it. But I don't know.

Jeff: That impassioned and fired up the conservative right wing of the party saying that he was abandoning Donald Trump. Donald Trump got very angry. So then McCarthy backtracked and he became silent on Trump while condemning what happened at the insurrection. And a few days go by and he really realizes that Trump's popularity has not faded despite what we all just witnessed in the nation's capital, and that's when he knew that he's going to realign himself with Trump and then he flew to Florida and made things right ‘cause he still saw Trump as being integral to Republican success in the current midterms.

Gustavo: More after the break. 

Gustavo: Jeff, you mentioned Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House. What has been McCarthy's relationship with her and the Democrats?

Jeff: Yeah, uh, he relationship with Pelosi has been a disaster. There's no mutual affection at all between the two. McCarthy once joked that he wanted to hit Pelosi with a gavel if he became speaker. People thought, well, there's the underlying sentiment. And Pelosi just told our Los Angeles Times editorial board that there was no substance to the man, that she's worked with people on both sides of the aisle for decades and that Kevin McCarthy was the man lacking substance ahead of anybody else. So there's no love there at all.

Gustavo: That gavel joke, just, I mean, even when it happened it was bad, but especially in the wake of the attack against Paul Pelosi, Nancy's husband, it just seems really indicative of something of McCarthy's worldview, so to speak.

Jeff: I think it's indicative of where we are in American politics right now. I think it's indicative of we've become a nation so divided and filled with rancor, so signing up behind our tribes and marching in unison step, that on both sides, whether it's extremely progressive on the left or even more like the Marjorie Taylor Greene faction on the right, we've taken humanity and caring and so much out of our politics where it's become blood sport, and it's not a metaphor to call it blood sport because that's where the country is right now

Gustavo: Does bipartisanship even matter to McCarthy now?

Jeff: I think he says it does. All politicians say that and I think maybe there are some deals they can strike. I think both parties agree something has to be done with immigration, something has to be done with entitlement programs going farther, so there may be some kind of partisanship.

But so far McCarthy's critics, including, uh, Marissa Wood, who ran against him, said that he doesn't practice bipartisanship at all. And one of the evidence people pointed to was the infrastructure bill that would've helped a lot of people in Bakersfield and in his district through school lunch and through other things and through road projects, and McCarthy led the Republican drive to vote against it.

So a lot of people think that in Bakersfield that sometimes he's not voting in their interest, is he voting in more Republican Party national interest.

Gustavo: Finally, Jeff, the presidential elections are in two years. McCarthy's at the top of his party, basically. What role is he going to play for those elections?

Jeff: He's gonna play a huge role. I mean, he's going to be able to set the tenor provided–,  the one thing we have to remember in the next two years is what will the conservative faction of the party think of Kevin McCarthy going forward? Is he genuflecting enough to Trump? Is he genuflecting enough to their causes?

He's straddling all these different wings, but if he runs afoul of one of them, especially the hard right, he could be in trouble with his own party. They could vote jo, out as speaker, there is that possibility. If he's able to surmount that, then he can set the agenda for the Republicans and how they're going to attack the Democrats and what the 2024 elections look like, the campaign, and set that agenda, and as well as be able to raise a ton of money, which he is quite skilled at.

Gustavo: Jeff, thank you so much for this conversation. 

Jeff: Thanks a lot Gustavo. Great being here. 

Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of The Times, Essential News from the L.A. Times. 

Denise Guerra and Shannon Lin were the jefas on this episode, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Roberto Reyes. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Friday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.