Kevin McCarthy is an American politician who served as the 55th speaker of the United States House of Representatives. A member of the Republican Party, he currently represents California’s 20th congressional district, which encompasses most of the San Joaquin Valley.
Early life and education
McCarthy and his wife, Judy, have two children. They are lifelong residents of Bakersfield. He and his family are Baptists and members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In October 2015, McCarthy was accused of having an affair with Representative Renee Ellmers. He had unexpectedly dropped out of the race for Speaker of the House shortly before the allegations surfaced. Days earlier, Representative Walter B. Jones Jr. had sent Republican Conference chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers a letter stating that any candidates for a leadership position with “misdeeds” should withdraw from the race. McCarthy and Ellmers have denied the allegation.
Early political career
After serving as the chair of the California Young Republicans in the 1990s, McCarthy chaired the Young Republican National Federation (1999–2001). His first elected office was as a member of the Kern County Community College District Board of Trustees in 2000. Within three years, not only had he been elected to the California Assembly (2002) but also, at age 38, he had become its Republican minority leader, likely because of a combination of Thomas’s influence and McCarthy’s impressive fundraising skills.
In 2006, upon Thomas’s retirement, McCarthy was elected to his mentor’s safe Republican seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. McCarthy’s rise to prominence came quickly in Washington too. Although his command of the details of policy and his commitment to any particular ideology have been questioned throughout McCarthy’s political career, few observers have ever doubted his emotional intelligence. Arguably, relationship building is McCarthy’s greatest skill, as demonstrated by his work to become exceedingly familiar with his colleagues’ personalities, histories, preferences, and idiosyncrasies—knowledge gained partly through his exhaustive study of the detailed profiles of legislators in The Almanac of American Politics.
McCarthy was reelected to the House in 2008, continuing a chain of consecutive victories that would stretch to 2020. In 2009 he became the House Republicans’ chief deputy whip, assisting party whip Eric Cantor. (Whips make sure that all of a party’s legislators vote the same way on specific legislation.) When Cantor became the majority leader after the Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, McCarthy took on the role of majority whip. He also joined Cantor and future House leader Paul Ryan as a coauthor of Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders (2010). In 2014 McCarthy again replaced Cantor, this time as majority leader, after Cantor lost his seat in a primary challenge. McCarthy’s long-held ambition to become speaker of the House seemed about to be fulfilled when John Boehner was effectively forced to resign in 2015. However, his candidacy was undermined by a combination of the rumor of his marital infidelity (denied by McCarthy), the belief of some on the party’s right wing that he was not conservative enough, and an untimely major gaffe by McCarthy: in boasting that the House’s Republican-led investigation of the 2012 Benghazi incident had undermined the popularity of former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, McCarthy violated the unspoken rule that the motivation for the committee’s investigation not be acknowledged. McCarthy withdrew his candidacy; Ryan became the speaker.
Whereas Ryan had an uneasy relationship with Donald Trump, McCarthy quickly developed a rapport with the new Republican president. Moreover, McCarthy came to Trump’s defense on the matters of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the president’s phone call with Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky, which led to Trump’s first impeachment. After Ryan chose not to run for reelection in 2018 and the House swung back to Democratic control, the Republican caucus chose McCarthy as minority leader.
McCarthy’s relationship with Trump soured after the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, most notably when McCarthy rebuked Trump for the role he played in the attack, saying from the House floor, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” By the end of January, however, apparently responding to the Republican base’s continued support for Trump, McCarthy traveled to Trump’s Florida home in pursuit of rapprochement with the now-former president. In October McCarthy’s relationship with Trump was threatened again when a New York Times report revealed that, in the aftermath of the attack, McCarthy had told Republican colleagues that he planned to advise the president to resign.
After Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi refused to seat two of the Republican representatives chosen by McCarthy to serve on the committee investigating the January 6th attack (Jim Jordan and Jim Banks), McCarthy withdrew his other nominees and sought to block Republican involvement in the committee, which he branded a “sham process.” When Representatives Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney ignored that directive, the Republican National Committee censured them, and McCarthy saw that Cheney was stripped of her leadership role within the party. Later, however, some Republicans, including Trump, criticized McCarthy for allowing the committee to proceed without a countervailing Republican presence, especially after it became clear that the committee’s findings were damaging Trump’s reputation.
For months, Republicans approached the 2022 midterm elections with the expectation that they would benefit from the tendency of the party in control of the White House to lose such elections. Moreover, there was a sense that the GOP would not only regain control of the House of Representatives but also ride a “red wave” to a commanding majority in the chamber by the electorate’s widespread disenchantment with climbing inflation (especially with high gas and grocery prices). As the elections drew closer, however, it appeared that, for many voters, the principal issue was instead abortion rights, in response to the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In the end, the race for control of the House proved to be surprisingly close: the Republicans secured a slim 222–213 majority.
Despite their party’s disappointing performance in the midterm elections, on November 15 the Republican caucus voted 188–31 to retain McCarthy as its leader rather than replace him with right-wing challenger Andy Biggs of Arizona. Nevertheless, weeks of negotiating and dealmaking followed as McCarthy sought to win the reluctant support of the party’s right-wing, which would be necessary for him to become the speaker of the House in the new Congress. Most notably, he acquiesced on a rules change that would allow as few as five representatives to trigger a vote on removing him from the speakership, which seemingly threatened to put his leadership in constant peril. To become speaker, McCarthy needed to win 218 votes from the full body of the House (barring any absences or votes of “present”) in its opening session on January 3, 2023.
In the first round of voting, a group of 19 hard-line conservatives, made up almost exclusively of members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, denied McCarthy the support necessary to become speaker, marking the first time since 1923 that the vote on the speakership would require more than one ballot. Over the coming days, through successive votes, right-wing Republican opponents to McCarthy’s candidacy continued to block his ascent to the speakership, despite a raft of concessions that he granted them. As the process stagnated, to the great embarrassment of the Republican leadership, speculation mounted regarding an acceptable compromise candidate to replace McCarthy. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who had been elected in November following the midterms to serve as majority leader, headed the list of potential alternative candidates; however, he remained steadfast in his support of McCarthy’s pursuit of the speakership. In the wee hours of the morning of January 7, 2023, McCarthy, with the help of such controversial lawmakers as Marjorie Taylor Greene, was elected speaker of the House on the 15th ballot.
On October 3, believing that they had been betrayed by McCarthy, a group of right-wing Republican House members sought to remove him as speaker. When Democrats elected not to take action to prevent McCarthy’s ouster, a bill that sought to block a vote on McCarthy’s leadership failed by a count of 208 to 218, as 11 Republicans voted to not block the vote. Eight Republicans then joined all of the Democrats in voting 216 to 210 to remove McCarthy from office.