BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — People watching Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s political rise often marvel at how he got here. He’s the not-so-serious guy who used to bop around town selling sandwiches and cars before dipping into politics. He was considered likable and fun but hardly Bakersfield’s star pupil.
The rest of the country might be stunned, too, if Republicans win in November and McCarthy succeeds in his quest to become speaker of the House, next in line after the vice president to the presidency.
Yet many in Bakersfield are musing that “Kevin” — he’s still just easygoing, uncomplicated Kevin here — might actually pull off this ascent. The Republican Party insiders who nurtured his career are proud, if a bit surprised. Critics are just as stumped at what they see as a new, low bar for top leadership. But in this under-examined corner of California’s Trump country, there’s also a bit of told-you-so defiance that McCarthy’s brand of hustle and persistence pays off, even in Washington.
“People probably have a certain perception of Kevin — he didn’t graduate from Harvard or do a lot of things politicians do,” said Rick Priest, a McCarthy pal since the seventh grade. “He works hard. He has a lot of people behind him here.”
“I’m not going to suggest everything’s going to be glitter and fairy dust if he becomes speaker,” said Larry Starrh, a third-generation family farmer who has watched McCarthy mature from intern to potential House speaker. But McCarthy has the kind of energy and attitude that “takes care of a lot of things.”
“He’s hard to knock down,” he said.
McCarthy, the House majority leader, declined to be interviewed on the record. Unscripted remarks have caused him trouble, and he says he’ll talk about the speaker’s race after Republicans retain control of the House. He maintains they will and has said little about what’s next for him if they don’t. But last week, back at home while Congress was on recess, McCarthy told a group of students he’s unlikely to run for another office after serving in the House: “That’s where my political career will probably end.”
The silver-coiffed 53-year-old was typically upbeat and self-effacing as he addressed the student leaders gathered for a luncheon at a local Ford dealership. McCarthy is often first to admit he’s not the smartest guy in the room. He’s quick to talk about his stumbles, his refusal to quit. He would not have had the grades to be accepted into the student leadership program, he told the group, but that didn’t stop him.
“I don’t care what they say about me, I kept smiling,” he said, giving his hometown credit for the resilience, especially after he abruptly pulled out of the speaker’s race three years ago.
“People sell this place low, they don’t understand the jewel of what we have,” he said. “Because I’m from Bakersfield, I’m fearless.”
McCarthy is used to being underestimated, just like his hometown. The gateway to the Central Valley is a stopover spot to fill up the tank outside of Los Angeles, full of oil drillers and farmers. The economy, often cyclical, depends much on resources and work. Though its demographics are changing, thanks to a growing Latino population, its political leanings haven’t shifted much in decades.
This other California is not known for sending many leaders to Washington. In fact, McCarthy had to abandon a bid for speaker in 2015 amid skepticism from fellow House Republicans that a Californian could lead the increasingly conservative, religious and uncompromising pack of politicians. Instead they chose Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
But that was before McCarthy became an early Donald Trump supporter. Before this place some call California’s Bible Belt voted heartily for Trump. And before the new president started calling McCarthy “My Kevin.”
Bakersfield’s clubby, conservative political machine groomed McCarthy when he was just a likable young intern and has been pleased to find it picked a quick study and now savvy strategist — if not necessarily a policy wonk or a political mastermind like his predecessors in House leadership.
What McCarthy lacks in traditional pedigree he makes up for with the kind of resume that matters here. He’s a firefighter’s son and a Bakersfield High School graduate who went on to the California State University, Bakersfield, who learned his political street smarts as an aide to former GOP Rep. Bill Thomas, the region’s longtime congressman.
By the time McCarthy arrived in Sacramento after his own run for state Assembly in 2002, he was quickly selected as minority leader his freshman year. Then-state Senate GOP leader Jim Brulte was certain California had its new “superstar.”
“Nobody didn’t like Kevin,” said Brulte, now the California GOP chairman, who took McCarthy on a trip to Washington, introducing him as a future House speaker. “Even people who were opposed to him liked him.”
When Thomas retired, the path was cleared for McCarthy to run for the seat in 2006 and win.
From that first bid, McCarthy showed he was good at the game. Cruising to his own election, he started raising money for other Republicans. Later he was recruiting newcomers, much the way he learned back home.
That fundraising prowess vaulted him to leadership potential as part of the “Young Guns,” a trio that included Ryan and then-Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. McCarthy has hauled in more than $28 million so far this election cycle, some as part of a joint fundraising committee with Vice President Mike Pence that collects six-figure checks from big donors. Cantor was defeated a few years ago, and after Ryan retires in January, McCarthy will be the last of the Young Guns standing.
“Kevin is a political survivor,” said Mark A. Martinez, a political science professor at California State University, Bakersfield, who says one of McCarthy’s talents is ingratiating himself to leaders in Bakersfield, Sacramento and now Washington.
“Kevin’s going to enable the worst elements of Donald Trump,” said Martinez. “He’s not going to put the brakes on him.”
As McCarthy’s profile rises, so do complaints from Democrats that he’s less accessible at home, declining big town-hall meetings and closing the door on immigration protesters who occupied his Bakersfield office and staked out his family’s home.
Latinos in his district are challenging the old order, and McCarthy hasn’t shifted his positions to reflect the changes. He’s part of the House leadership that talks about tackling immigration issues but has blocked votes on bipartisan legislation and failed to develop its own bills that could pass Congress.
It’s all quite a world away from the one where Kevin Owen McCarthy set up a sandwich counter inside his uncle’s yogurt shop or flipped cars he bought and sold at a local auto auction.
A few doors down from the old Kevin O’s Deli, Monica Ramos now runs Los 3 Amigos butcher shop. She says she knows all about McCarthy — his friendship with Trump and the GOP tax bill “for rich people.”
“He forgot where he came from,” said Ramos, the daughter of immigrant farm workers who said she has lived in town for 35 years. She doubts he’ll become House speaker in today’s political climate. “That’s not going to happen.”
But others see McCarthy as increasingly looking the part. He’s more polished and his public speaking has improved, they say.
“He has come a long way with his ability to be off the cuff,” said longtime City Councilwoman Jacquie Sullivan, a Republican.
Allies winced when McCarthy didn’t make speaker last time, but they also say he grew from the experience. As the young student leaders settled in for lunch of lasagna and lemonade, car dealership president Dan Hay, whose family has been running the program for 40-plus years, introduced McCarthy as a model to the students.
“He’s a good example of a local guy who’s done really well,” Hay said.