House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) addresses during a news conference at the Capitol on Feb. 24.
Stefani Reynolds—The New York Times/Redux
April 22, 2021 8:44 PM EDT

Kevin McCarthy was almost to the end of the press conference when a reporter asked whether Donald Trump should speak at an upcoming conservative conclave in Florida.

It was Feb. 24, just over a month since the former President had left office and days after he was acquitted of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader and a loyal Trump supporter, was quick to say yes, he should. Then the question was directed at Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican and a vocal Trump critic. She said it was up to the conference’s organizers— but didn’t think Trump “should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.”

As she answered, McCarthy closed his eyes for a beat too long. “On that high note, thank you all very much,” he said, and the press conference screeched to a halt.

The awkward exchange encapsulated part of McCarthy’s challenge as he vies to steer the GOP back to power in the House. To regain the majority next year, McCarthy has to hold together a splintered party reckoning with its future in the post-Trump era. One faction of the GOP wants to move past a divisive former President who espoused racist views and misinformation. But most of the party has embraced Trump and all that comes with him: a deviation from core Republican principles, the undermining of valid elections, and a willingness to go to the mat on culture-war issues, from Dr. Seuss to Mr. Potato Head.

Though he’s one of the most senior Republicans in the country, McCarthy has declined to articulate a clear vision for which direction the party should be headed. “This Republican Party’s a very big tent,” he said after a closed-door conference meeting in February, where the conference debated a leadership challenge to Cheney and a steady stream of scandals surrounding GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, including her past indication of support on social media for the execution of high-profile Democrats and trafficking in conspiracy theories. “Everyone’s invited in,” McCarthy said.

The “big tent” doctrine is quintessential McCarthy. Ask people who know him about his guiding philosophy, and you might get a “good question!”, a pause, and an answer like “pragmatism.” But conversations with more than a dozen current and former House members, GOP strategists, Republican staffers and other party observers offer a portrait of a politician with a win-at-all-costs approach. “He’s a 218 conservative,” says Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump, referring to the number of seats required for a House majority. “If you want to understand Kevin McCarthy, then you got to understand that he wants to win back the majority, and he is singularly focused on this task.”

That focus may very well carry Republicans back to power in next year’s midterm elections and lift McCarthy to the speakership. If the 2020 election is any indication, things are looking promising. Last year was supposed to be a crippling year for Republicans, but their losing presidential candidate managed to rake in 74 million votes in the popular vote, Senate Republicans kept the chamber at a 50-50 split, and in the House, Republicans defended every single incumbent and reduced the margin of seats by which Democrats held it.

But in the long run, McCarthy’s win-at-all-costs style could backfire—for the party and for the nation.

McCarthy, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was the highest-ranking congressional Republican to back Trump’s attempts to steal an election, including a lawsuit that would have invalidated millions of votes. He voted against certifying the presidential election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, even as a mob stormed the Capitol and interrupted the counting. He later said Trump bore responsibility for the unrest—as he explained why he would vote against impeaching him for inciting the insurrection.

It’s this tendency to want to have things both ways that frustrates Republican critics, who say McCarthy is failing to define what the GOP stands for as it limps out of the Trump era, leaving it rudderless. “My hope is … that the Kevin who spoke during the impeachment, notwithstanding the fact that he didn’t vote for it, will be the Kevin leading the Republicans on the floor of the House, and not the [Kevin who had] been supporting, nurturing the lies of the President,” said former California Rep. Bill Thomas, McCarthy’s longtime mentor, in a local TV interview with KGET 17 shortly after the insurrection.

Of course, by inviting “everyone” into the party, McCarthy is making one clear choice: a choice not to alienate Trump’s loyal base of voters. Hitching the House conference to the former President’s vision of politics “may be effective in the short term, but I think that there’s tremendous brand erosion over the long term when you suck up to somebody that doesn’t represent the ideals that allegedly your party stands for,” says former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, a Republican who has sparred with Trump. “It’s a mistake to play the Trump card, period. But what do I know? I’m out of office, and he’s in.”

In this July 20, 2004 photo, then-California Assembly Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, center, and Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman, left, wheel a cappuccino machine into the Governor's office at the Capitol in Sacramento. McCarthy, the majority leader who’s favored to become the next speaker of the House, has energetically nurtured GOP legislators in the House since he was elected to Congress nine years ago.
Steve Yeater—AP

McCarthy, 56, is known for his detailed knowledge of the congressional district map, his quick smile and his fundraising.

He grew up in Bakersfield, California in a family of blue-collar Democrats, he says in the 2010 book Young Guns. After finishing high school, he got a lucky break, winning $5,000 in the state lottery. McCarthy made the decidedly un-teenage decision to invest the money, and at 21, he used the profits to start Kevin O’s Deli in Bakersfield, which he says he sold to pay for his education at California State University, Bakersfield.

McCarthy first got involved in politics at 22, as an unpaid intern in Thomas’s district office. Thomas was a powerful lawmaker who would later rise to be chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and McCarthy spent 15 years working for him, eventually becoming his district director. In his late 30s, McCarthy was elected to the California state assembly, where colleagues chose him as Republican leader of the State Assembly as a freshman. “At the risk of sounding immodest, most assembly Republican leaders had to run to keep up with me. I had to run to keep up with McCarthy,” says Jim Brulte, who was Republican leader of the California Senate when McCarthy was in the legislature.

When Thomas announced he would retire in 2006, McCarthy jumped into the congressional race for his old boss’s seat and won handily. The heavily agricultural district was safely red, but nationally it was a tough year for the party, which lost control of the House for the first time since the 1994 Gingrich Revolution. McCarthy joined Congress in a class of just 13 GOP freshmen, where he quickly fell in with other young leaders of the conference. It wasn’t long before he was branded as one of the three “Young Guns” that was supposed to help retake the chamber. At one point he gave members wristwatches — the intended message being, it’s time to win back the House, recalls Ken Spain, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2010 cycle.

The mid-to-late aughts were a dark time for the GOP, which was looking for a new vision to appeal to Americans. TIME magazine, as Republicans now love to point out, ran a 2009 cover with the GOP elephant and the headline, “Endangered Species.” As the party prepared for the 2010 midterms, McCarthy was appointed recruitment chair of the NRCC, the House’s official campaign arm.

McCarthy knew the political environment created “opportunities for people who may not otherwise consider running for the U.S. House of Representatives,” recalls Brian Walsh, then political director of the NRCC, and they “recruited a massive class of outsiders.” They included the likes of Stephen Fincher, a farmer and gospel singer from Frog Jump, Tennessee; Mike Pompeo, who would go on to serve as Secretary of State under Trump; Mick Mulvaney, who would also serve in various roles in the Trump Administration; Tim Scott, a sitting senator; and Adam Kinzinger, now one of the few outspoken Trump critics in the House.

The 2010 election was dominated by the rise of the Tea Party movement, which channeled anger, resentment and fear among Republican voters. More than 80 new Republicans were elected to the House. In his new memoir, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner characterized the atmosphere this way: you “could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name—and that year, by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.” In an interview with TIME, Boehner expanded on the consequences of that election: “It was an early example of the partisan divide in America that we see now so vividly,” he says.

Shortly after helping win back the House, McCarthy was elected House majority whip, a job that requires rounding up votes for the party’s legislative priorities. Though respected as a prescient judge of where the political winds were blowing, he did not hold much sway over the hardliners he had recruited, who gave then-Speaker Boehner and company plenty of headaches over the next few years. Nor did McCarthy end up establishing himself as someone who would twist arms to bring in votes. GOP leaders often relied on Democrats to get big votes across the finish line in the House. (McCarthy’s office declined to comment on his time as whip.)

When Boehner resigned in 2015, McCarthy was seen as a likely replacement as Speaker. But his bid for the job struggled from the start. McCarthy gave an interview on Fox News in which he linked the Benghazi committee—an investigation led by Republicans into the response from the Obama Administration to the 2012 Benghazi, Libya attacks in which four Americans died—to hurting Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The misstep left Republicans open to attacks about the partisan aims behind the initiative. Just before the leadership vote, the Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-line conservatives, also announced they would back their own candidate, fracturing the conference vote and leaving McCarthy short of the votes he would have needed. On the day of the vote, McCarthy announced he would withdraw from the race. Trump, then still several months out from securing the Republican presidential nomination, celebrated the news of McCarthy dropping out, and even took credit.

Over the coming months, the tenor of their relationship evidently changed. By February, McCarthy publicly commented that he could work with Trump. In March of 2016, he was talking about how Trump could help win House seats. By May, McCarthy was signed up to serve as a Trump delegate leading up to the convention that would officially make him the nominee, even as House Speaker Paul Ryan hesitated to endorse. The two started talking frequently by phone, according to Politico, with McCarthy working to defuse tensions between the Republican establishment and the outsider plowing his way toward the presidency.

McCarthy soon became one of Trump’s most vocal defenders. Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a senior member of the House Republican conference, says McCarthy defended Trump’s political viability through the “Access Hollywood” scandal in the last days of the 2016 election to other Republicans. (McCarthy’s office declined to comment on why he did so.) Trump referred to McCarthy as “my Kevin” on the eve of his inauguration. During his presidency, McCarthy gave Trump a jar full of his two favorite colors of Starbursts —red and pink— as a marker of his personal touch.

When House Speaker Paul Ryan announced in 2018 that he would retire, McCarthy became minority leader after Democrats took the House in the midterms. He had the President’s ear, often providing political advice. Brian Jack, who served as President Trump’s White House Political Director and currently leads McCarthy’s national political team, says McCarthy would regularly meet with President Trump and his political team in the Oval Office, the President’s residence or even Air Force One in between campaign stops where Trump would be presented with slide decks of candidates McCarthy wanted to discuss with him. They would review the race, and “candidates’ previous statements about himself and his Administration’s policies,” Jack says.

Despite scandal after scandal during Trump’s tenure, McCarthy stuck with Trump.

“I think Kevin has a good sense that the President still has a hold—which he clearly does—over huge swaths of the Republican Party, and the Trump base is the base you’re going to build off of to win. Doesn’t mean other Republicans that have a different point of view can’t be part of that,” says Cole. “Kevin is probably the most sophisticated political thinker we have on our side of the aisle, and you just gotta believe that this relationship can be politically beneficial for the President, but certainly for us as well.”

Jack agrees. Since Trump left office, “McCarthy’s made abundantly clear throughout that President Trump is going to be one of the most integral parts of us taking back the House in 2022,” he says. “They were two of the only people that actually thought we would gain seats [in the House in 2020], and sure enough, we did. They formed a partnership that was successful, and … he wants to continue that partnership.”

Former President Donald Trump speaks as he is joined by McCarthy in the Rose Garden of the White House on Jan. 4, 2019.
Alex Wong—Getty Images

In early January, McCarthy had an opportunity to chart a new course for the party. McCarthy called Trump as the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol was happening. When he “asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the President initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol. McCarthy refuted that and told the President that these were Trump supporters,” Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler said in a statement she released during the second Trump impeachment trial. “That’s when, according to McCarthy, the President said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’”

On the day of the vote to impeach Trump in the House for inciting the attack, McCarthy said on the House floor that Trump “bears responsibility.” But he voted against impeaching Trump, saying there hadn’t been a proper investigation in the House. Before the month was over, McCarthy flew to Florida to meet Trump at Mar-a-Lago, releasing a picture of the two of them smiling, with a statement saying Trump had committed to helping him win back the House. To date, McCarthy continues to regularly speak with Trump, according to Miller, and had dinner with him at Mar-a-Lago at the end of March.

Republican support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the election came with a literal cost: corporate donations to Republicans who had backed the former President drastically declined. (McCarthy’s team announced April 8 that he personally still pulled in $27.1 million in the first quarter.) Nevertheless, McCarthy has not made an effort to distance himself from Trump; on the contrary, many of the stunts McCarthy has been up to this Congress are downright Trumpian. In March he released a clip of himself reading “Green Eggs and Ham” by Dr. Seuss; the right had started using it as a culture war symbol when Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced it would stop printing several Dr. Seuss books due to their “hurtful and wrong” portrayals of people. (“Green Eggs and Ham” wasn’t one of the books on the list.) He also made a meandering attempt to claim he did not support overturning the presidential election results.

For all McCarthy’s attempts to maintain one, a big tent can be unwieldy. Over the past four months alone, McCarthy has had to face the challenge of disciplining Greene, which he didn’t; of defending a leadership challenge to Cheney, which he first approached tepidly, and then by not answering the question when he was recently asked whether Trump should cut out the attacks against her; and of responding to the scandal around Rep. Matt Gaetz, a fellow Trump supporter that the New York Times reported is being investigated over whether he engaged in sex trafficking. (Gaetz has denied the allegations; McCarthy has said Gaetz is innocent until proven guilty.)

And despite voting no on impeaching Trump, McCarthy spent this week criticizing Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters for calling on protesters to get “more confrontational” if there was no guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis last year.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had no problem lambasting Greene in a statement that said “loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country.” McCarthy also put out a statement, but left it to Democrats to take a floor vote to strip her of her committees. And some Republicans, such as Kinzinger, who like Cheney voted to impeach Trump, have been unequivocal in pushing back on anybody who suggests Cheney shouldn’t be in leadership. McCarthy meanwhile has expressed support for Cheney, but it has been inconsistent.

Out west, some old allies are growing tired of McCarthy’s strategy of walking the line. In the local TV interview he did, Thomas juxtaposed McCarthy directly with another central California Republican in the House, David Valadao, as “hypocrites and heroes.” The hero, he suggested, was not his own mentee, but Valadeo, who had voted earlier to impeach Trump for inciting violence. (McCarthy’s office declined to comment on Thomas’ interview.)

“People in Sacramento who have seen him adopt such support for the former President, defending the politics of the former President, adopting some of the issues of the former President— it’s a bit disorienting compared to his time here in the state House,” says Rob Stutzman, a California-based GOP strategist. “I think you can attribute all that to [McCarthy’s] pragmatism—or at least what he sees as pragmatism—in trying to hold together what may be a Republican coalition that cannot be held together.”

If McCarthy pulls that off and becomes Speaker after the 2022 midterms, he will be presiding over a conference that he helped shape over the last decade. The expectation that he keep the guests in line will be even higher.

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Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com.

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