McCarthy woos Freedom Caucus with eye on Speakership
Five years ago, conservative bomb-throwers in the House Freedom Caucus blocked Rep. Kevin McCarthy from rising to the Speakership. Now, the California Republican is working to ensure he doesn’t suffer the same fate if Republicans take back the majority in 2022.
McCarthy, the affable, back-slapping minority leader, has spent the past election cycle bringing Freedom Caucus members — once relegated to the fringes of the party — to the leadership table and into his inner circle.
He helped former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) win the top GOP spot on the Oversight and Reform Committee and later the powerful Judiciary Committee. He’s invited leaders from the Freedom Caucus and other factions to the GOP’s annual leadership retreats the past two years in Middleburg, Va., and St. Michaels, Md.
And this week, he named Freedom Caucus Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) as his personal designee on the powerful Steering Committee, which decides which Republicans get plum positions on committees, including chairmanships or ranking member slots.
“The one thing coming out of becoming [minority] leader, I knew we could never win the majority if we were divided. Lincoln tells us that a divided house cannot stand. So the one thing I knew was that we had to unite people,” McCarthy said Thursday in an interview with The Hill.
“I’ve always thought we’ve got such talent. We can’t let differences of opinion divide us. The strength of our conference is the talent of everybody and how do we utilize everybody’s talent.”
Over the past four years, President Trump, who is extremely close to McCarthy, has played the biggest role in uniting warring factions of the party, mainly by publicly demanding absolute loyalty from Republicans up and down the ballot. But behind the scenes, the 55-year-old McCarthy has been aggressively courting leaders of the Freedom Caucus who have caused headaches for him and other GOP leaders in the past.
His outreach to his onetime rival, Jordan, is perhaps the best example. After Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced his retirement in 2018, Jordan unsuccessfully challenged McCarthy for minority leader after the midterm elections; McCarthy trounced him 159 to 43. But rather than ostracize Jordan, McCarthy extended an olive branch to the former collegiate wrestling champ just days later.
Against the advice of some fellow Steering Committee members, McCarthy said he phoned Jordan and pledged to back him to be the top Republican on the Oversight panel. A year later, as House Democrats prepared to impeach Trump, McCarthy temporarily installed Jordan — a vocal Trump defender who’s at ease in front of the cameras — on the Intelligence Committee so he could participate in the first televised impeachment hearings.
This past February, McCarthy again rallied behind Jordan, this time as the top Republican on the powerful Judiciary Committee after Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) stepped down to run for the Senate. McCarthy has also held fundraisers for Jordan and other Freedom Caucus members.
In turn, Jordan has publicly praised McCarthy’s leadership.
“Jim and I were very close when we first came in, and now we just have to mend those bridges. And what a better team of rivals,” McCarthy said of Jordan, a fellow member of the class of 2006. “Jim has been fabulous. I utilized him more so in the last Congress and we worked more as a team than at any time.”
McCarthy’s outreach to the Freedom Caucus doesn’t stop at Jordan. The California Republican worked closely with GOP Policy Chairman Gary Palmer (Ala.), a Freedom Caucus member, to draft the party’s “Commitment to America” agenda. More recently, McCarthy teamed with current Freedom Caucus Chair Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) in filing a joint lawsuit challenging Democrats’ use of proxy voting, which allows members to cast votes remotely and avoid traveling to D.C. due to the pandemic.
This week, McCarthy called up Lesko, who had been the sole female member of the Freedom Caucus, and informed her he was putting her on the Steering Committee — a first for the conservative caucus. Earlier, he had awarded her a slot on the influential Rules Committee.
“It was a pleasant surprise and I’m honored that he entrusted me with that duty,” Lesko said in a phone interview Thursday. “I think he genuinely wants to get input and consider input from the House Freedom Caucus members because they’re a part of our caucus. And so he genuinely wants to do it, but also it’s politically smart.”
In his telling of the events of 2015, McCarthy said he could have won the 218 floor votes needed to succeed Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who himself had been pressured to resign by Freedom Caucus leaders. But McCarthy explained that a narrow victory — and vocal opposition from some Freedom members — would have given him little room to maneuver as Speaker and would have “torn the conference further apart.” McCarthy abruptly dropped out of the running moments before the vote, and his good friend Ryan became Speaker instead, only to have his own run-ins with the Freedom Caucus.
“It’s always better to learn, correct any problems. The one thing I realized, that wasn’t a great scenario for me [in 2015], but I didn’t quit,” McCarthy said in Thursday’s interview. “Sometimes you got a plan and God has a different plan for you, and it made me stronger … At the end of the day, it might be one of the most interesting things if I ever write a book.”
McCarthy, who quickly rose from chairman of the Young Republicans to minority leader of the California state Assembly to House majority leader, came back stronger than ever this past November as Republicans defied expectations and ousted at least 13 Democratic incumbents, including four in his native California. The GOP gains have put Republicans in an incredibly strong position to win back the majority in 2022 and placed the Speaker’s gavel within reach for McCarthy.
The GOP leader predicted that House Republicans will be back in power in two years — “We’re going to be in the majority,” he vowed — and expressed confidence that he would be occupying the Speaker’s office, while noting that GOP lawmakers will ultimately make that decision.
A prolific fundraiser, McCarthy’s Take Back the House committee helped him raise $103 million for new candidates and incumbents this cycle, a record for a House Republican.
“No one’s gonna outwork me and no one’s going to be more focused than I am,” McCarthy said. “I firmly believe if I’m able to help lead and win this majority and keep everybody united, I don’t think there will be a question.”
“My idea is not to win the majority so I can be Speaker, it’s to win the majority so America can be strong,” he added.
Asked how well he knows President-elect Joe Biden, McCarthy said he had breakfasts with him when Biden was vice president, describing those interactions as “very pleasant.” But asked whether he could work with Biden, McCarthy replied: “Look, at the end of the day, the best thing for America would be a second term from President Trump. We’ve made great successes together.”
He also said Trump would have a “very good chance of winning reelection in 2024” if he chooses to run again.
While McCarthy is not known on Capitol Hill as a policy wonk, his strengths are his interpersonal skills and his relationships, some of which go back decades. He joked that he still has his very first cellphone number, so old friends and colleagues can reach him any time. And he has a reputation for calling and texting lawmakers at all hours of the day and night.
Jessica Millan Patterson said she first met McCarthy while she was volunteering at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. She checked him into the convention and they’ve stayed friends ever since. Today, she’s chairwoman of the California Republican Party.
“There are not a lot of people who can see both the big picture and the small details. He is someone who can do both while keeping up all those personal relationships,” Patterson told The Hill. “What he went out and did over the past two years, none of that was by accident; it was well thought out and well executed.”