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Kevin McCarthy finally gets to be the top House Republican — but in the minority

Kevin McCarthy is both establishment and Trumpy. Now he’s minority leader.

Rev. Billy Graham Lies In Repose In U.S. Capitol Rotunda
Kevin McCarthy will be the next minority leader — the job Nancy Pelosi currently holds.
Aaron Bernstein-Pool/Getty Images

California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy is moving on up.

House Republicans elected McCarthy, the current No. 2 House Republican majority leader, to lead the conference as the new minority leader, in a Republican-only vote on Wednesday.

When House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his retirement in April, McCarthy was largely seen as his natural successor. With Democrats in the majority and no Republican speakership position to fill, McCarthy didn’t have much of a fight to get the top post.

Only one other Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a conservative firebrand who co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, made a bid for the spot, but he couldn’t amass enough support to wage a real challenge.

McCarthy’s ascension is a sign that Republicans remain comfortable with the establishment — despite the fact that Democrats flipped the House by campaigning on the failures of the Republican agenda, which McCarthy helped establish.

With Democrats in control of the House, McCarthy now faces a clear choice: He will either have to find middle ground with his colleagues across the aisle, or accept that the Republican agenda will be put on pause until they regain the majority.

Kevin McCarthy has been eyeing this spot for a long time

McCarthy is an established name in Washington. He has held a seat in the House since 2007. Before that, he served as the minority leader of the California State Assembly, a position he was elected to as a freshman state lawmaker.

Unlike Ryan, McCarthy is not someone known to lead a policy debate, but on Capitol Hill, he’s well-liked and persuasive. He’s a strong fundraiser, and as someone who always said Republicans would stay in control of the House in 2019, he managed to convince his fellow Republicans that sticking with the party’s agenda was a winning strategy — to his own undoing, ironically.

His ambitions to lead House Republicans have been clear since 2015, when he ran to replace the embattled retiring Speaker John Boehner. But his campaign was short-lived; rumors of an affair with a colleague, overtly bragging about how Benghazi investigations tanked Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, and an arch-conservative revolt from the House Freedom Caucus pushed McCarthy to step behind Paul Ryan instead.

House GOP Leaders Speak To Press After Conference Meeting
Kevin McCarthy always wanted to be House speaker.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At the time, a cohort of conservatives, then led by Jordan, found McCarthy too close to Republican leadership and didn’t trust him to include hardline Republicans in the party’s legislative process.

But the factors that once made McCarthy’s leadership dreams untenable have largely washed away. He’s both close to leadership as the majority leader and a friend of Trump’s, who reportedly calls him “my Kevin,” an alliance even the most Trump-loving House conservatives have had a tough time ignoring.

The House Republican conference will be smaller, more conservative, and Trumpier next year

Democrats made significant gains in the 2018 midterms, winning 34 GOP-held seats for a net gain of 32 seats to win the House majority. When all is said and done, it’s possible Democrats could win up to 40 seats this year.

But Democrats still fell short in the Senate — and Trump remains in the White House. House Republicans, with McCarthy at the helm, will have to make a choice: Do they work with the Democrats in the House, or resign themselves to playing politics until the 2020 election cycle?

One factor may play a big role in McCarthy’s decision: The slimmed-down Republican conference is also significantly more conservative — and more Trumpy — than the current Congress.

In the runup to the 2018 midterms, many of the most moderate Republicans in the House announced their retirement. On Election Day, Democrats were most successful in ousting the remaining ones, many of whom sat in suburban, anti-Trump districts.

The most vulnerable Republicans in 2018 proved to be the “Republicans who sit in blueish districts, who support Trump uneasily, criticize him occasionally, and draw at least some lines he can’t cross,” as Vox’s Ezra Klein put it.

Those who remain are the most bullish on the president. In many ways, that’s a good fit for McCarthy, who has worked to ingratiate himself with conservatives in the House and has always been more of a strong political messenger than a policy mastermind.

But it does mean that securing actual tangible policy wins for Trump in the runup to the 2020 election will mean combating an increasingly polarized House.