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Kevin McCarthy and the fine art of falling up

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 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) passes through the Statuary Hall of the Capitol after a vote on the House floor on June 11, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
In the wake of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) stunning primary loss this week, many of us expected an epic intra-party fight in the race to replace him.
That's apparently not going to happen.

California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy appears to be Eric Cantor's heir apparent as House majority leader.  Texas Rep. Pete Sessions won't run for the House leadership post after all, the GOP congressman said in a statement late Thursday. The move clears the way for Majority Whip McCarthy to move up to the House's No. 2 position.

In theory, another House Republican could jump into the race -- given recent developments, anything's possible -- but McCarthy appears to have secured enough support to discourage potential challengers. House GOP lawmakers will vote on Thursday afternoon, and even if another rival emerges, he or she would face a steep climb with very little time.
And so, now is probably a good time to get to know Kevin McCarthy, the most powerful member of Congress the vast majority of Americans have never heard of and couldn't pick out of a line-up.
Jane Timm did a nice job summarizing some of the key aspects of McCarthy, including the fact that he's been slightly to Cantor's left on issues like immigration and health care. Ryan Grim and Ashley Alman added a few more tidbits, including this gem: "McCarthy is a likeable guy. But nobody really likes him. What's striking about talking to Republicans about McCarthy is how few are actual supporters, rather than people who would rather he have a job than somebody they like less."
But I was also struck by something Sam Stein said the other day in an interview with Rachel.

"McCarthy is sort of like the same character as Cantor, in that he's focused almost predominantly on this branding and how they can win seats in political battles. And very rarely do you associate a big piece of legislative or a big conservative ideology with him. Also, Kevin McCarthy has had some pretty epic fails when it comes to counting votes."

That's absolutely right. McCarthy hasn't made many waves in his four terms, but he also hasn't distinguished himself as a powerful Majority Whip, either. If you've seen the U.S. version of "House of Cards," you might think the Majority Whip is a position with enormous power and influence, but as we talked about last year, if you've seen McCarthy, he's disabused you of this impression.
After some of those "epic fails when it comes to counting votes," even Chris Cillizza chided McCarthy, saying, "When you are the House majority whip, your job is to 'whip' votes. As in, get people to vote for things."
As in, the task McCarthy has routinely struggled to complete.
Putting aside substantive merit -- which hasn't been McCarthy's strong suit -- the incoming Majority Leader has been responsible for whipping the House Republican caucus in order to advance the party's leadership's agenda. But McCarthy has never been especially effective in this gig.
It's not unreasonable to suggest this isn't entirely McCarthy's fault. House GOP members are arguably too extreme to listen, too raucous to consider the big picture, and too dependent on the base to even consider compromises. Sure, House Republican lawmakers have no leadership, but that may be because they can't be led. McCarthy has probably been the least effective Whip in recent memory -- helping create a Congress that's passed fewer bills than any in generations -- but there are systemic issues at play that made his job almost impossible to do.
Nevertheless, McCarthy's failures in the #3 leadership slot apparently won't stand in the way of him claiming the #2 position. The California Republican is demonstrating how to fall up into a promotion.