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5 things to know about Rep. Kevin McCarthy

This California Republican is likely to become the GOP's next majority leader. Here's what you need to know.
U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (C) passes through the Statuary Hall of the Capitol after a vote on the House floor, June 11, 2014.
U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (C) passes through the Statuary Hall of the Capitol after a vote on the House floor, June 11, 2014.

It’s been a week of unexpected events.

On Tuesday night, an unknown economics professor and political novice defeated the Republican Party’s Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, it was the first time a primary challenger had beat a majority leader since the job was created in 1899.

With Cantor out, suddenly all eyes are turned to the GOP’s number three guy, California’s Rep. Kevin McCarthy, to take Cantor’s job—and potentially, down the line, Rep. John Boehner’s.

Here are five things you need to know about the 49-year-old Republican as he works to shore up party support for the majority leader race on June 19th.

1. He’s an ambitious workaholic

In California back in 2004, the Democratic speaker of the state assembly got an odd phone call: McCarthy—then the top Republican in the state Assembly—was sitting in the speaker’s chair presiding over an otherwise empty chamber, according to The New Republic.

McCarthy would later tell the top Democrat he’d swung by the state capitol to try out his seat -- to see what it would feel like when his party retook the majority. While McCarthy never ended up with that job, his quick ascension through the House of Representatives was no surprise.

McCarthy lives, breathes, and eats his job: he sleeps in his personal office, and has turned the majority whip’s offices into a hang-out spot for the party’s youngest members, many of whom also live in their offices, so much so the New York Times described it as an “airport frequent-flier lounge, complete with beer and wine.” According to the same story, McCarthy never dines alone: he uses every social event and meal as a chance to connect with party members.

2. He can wrangle the tea party – sometimes

Remember the 2011 Ryan budget plan that passed with all but four Republicans’ votes, despite having 2010’s rowdy tea party-filled freshman class to reckon with? You can thank McCarthy for that. Though the budget in its complete form -- which would have axed federal, non-security discretionary spending to pre-Depression levels -- went nowhere, it was an enormous sign of GOP unity in budget talks.

McCarthy is about as far from the tea party caucus as one can be: a career politician, he worked his way up through establishment ranks and was groomed to take his current seat when his mentor, the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas, retired and paved the way for McCarthy’s rise to power, but he’s been able to earn their votes and attention when it comes to the party agenda.

His leadership has limits, though: several crucial votes have shown McCarthy's weakness with the caucus, like last year's Farm Bill, which was defeated when far-right Republicans declared the bill too expensive just as Democrats condemned the cuts to it too drastic.

3. He’s actually kinda for immigration

Immigration was Cantor’s downfall -- his opponent hit the majority leader over his tentative support of immigration reform -- but McCarthy is even farther to the left of Cantor on the issue. McCarthy supports creating a legal status for illegal immigrants.

“The principles aren’t combined or written out yet, but in my personal belief, I think you’ll go with legal status,” McCarthy told a hometown news station of the GOP’s immigration principles, currently being written by the party. “That it will allow you to work [and] pay your taxes.”

The anti-immigration group NumbersUSA, which advocates for a drastic reduction of the number of immigrants that are in the country and grades legislators, has given McCarthy the lowest possible grade on immigration for the current Congress, an F- or 0%. Cantor, for reference, had a 62% rating, a C+.

McCarthy’s only opponent in the majority race, Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, is “absolutely opposed to amnesty”; Numbers USA scores him favorably, with a 71%, a B grade.

4. He’s tried to work with Obamacare

While McCarthy, like the rest of the GOP, has voted dozens of times to gut Obamacare, he’s also advocated for presenting alternatives and modifications instead of just efforts to derail the president’s health care laws.

“It’s important to show the American people that there is a better approach to improving health care for Americans than Obamacare,” McCarthy told the Times.

So far his alterations -- like one to change the number of hours an employee must work to be insured by their employer from 30 to 40 -- wouldn’t go far in the Democrat-controlled Senate, but they capitalize on Republican opposition to the law with a bit more finesse and leadership than, say, Ted Cruz’s defunding efforts, which shut down the government for 16 days without affecting the law in any way.

5. He helped inspire Frank Underwood

McCarthy may not be much like Frank Underwood, the scheming protagonist of the Netflix series "House of Cards," but actor Kevin Spacey used the real-life majority whip as inspiration for his portrayal of the fictional, far-more-devious whip.

Spacey met with McCarthy twice when researching the show, which prides itself on being factually accurate, and even attended a whip meeting with the California Republican to get a sense of the job. Spacey said McCarthy was “really helpful” in his research.

McCarthy joked that if he was more like Spacey’s character, his job would be easier.

"He portrays this person with all the wrong things you hear about Washington. He literally murders one member. If I could murder one member, I'd never have to worry about another vote."

Additional reporting by Kelly Weill.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the grades discussed from NumbersUSA were career grades. They are grades for this specific Congress.