The son of a Bakersfield firefighter, Rep. Kevin McCarthy has hauled plenty of political hose to get where he is now, seemingly perched on the edge of real power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But he's still facing competition, with Idaho Republican Raul Labrador's late entry Friday into the House majority leader's race.
Both men are running to replace Eric Cantor of Virginia, who was upset this week in a primary contest and will step down from the role of majority leader. With his three-day head start and highly organized whip operation, McCarthy is the odds-on favorite to win next week, after which his real work would begin.
"He'll face the same challenges as Cantor: trying to keep the party together while having to allow it to be rolled on occasion when the alternative is shutting down the government or throwing global markets into a tizzy," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego.
Texas Republican Rep. Pete Sessions dropped out late Thursday night, opening the door for the long-shot Labrador to enter the race from the right Friday morning. Tea party affiliates and other restive House Republicans were clamoring for an alternative to McCarthy, whom they view as an establishment candidate too closely aligned with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Labrador was among the 87 Republican freshmen elected to the House in a tea party wave in 2010. A 46-year-old Mormon who's a father of five, Labrador would be the first Puerto Rican-born House majority leader if he's elected.
"I want a House leadership that reflects the best of our conference," Labrador said in a statement. "Americans don't believe their leaders in Washington are listening, and now is the time to change that."
FreedomWorks, a conservative political lobbying group allied with the tea party, launched an email petition drive supporting Labrador on Friday, saying he "won't sell out to special interests and will fight to protect your constitutional rights."
Campaign for Liberty, a group founded by Republican former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is also endorsing Labrador's candidacy. Paul ran for president under the Libertarian Party banner.
The number of votes Labrador pulls in next week's secret ballot might be a measure of internal GOP dissension, though most expect the 233-member Republican caucus to formally elevate McCarthy.
McCarthy is currently the House majority whip, the No. 3 position in the House GOP hierarchy. If elected, the genial 49-year-old former businessman would become the first Central Valley lawmaker to hold the House's No. 2 spot. The only Californian who's vaulted higher is former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco and ideological polar opposite with whom McCarthy nonetheless shares some political attributes.
McCarthy, like Pelosi, is a diligent builder of personal networks, a rememberer of birthdays and the political needs of colleagues. He builds the GOP team by inviting lawmakers to discuss their first concerts or their most embarrassing moments.
The hallways in his first-floor Capitol office are adorned with a revolving set of members' photographs. It's a place to find late-night pizza.
Like Pelosi, who also served as her party's whip, McCarthy has had to corral votes with fewer traditional tools at his disposal.
"Being whip now is different than with the whips in the past," McCarthy acknowledged in an interview with McClatchy last year. "The country is different; the rules are different. It's a different time."
Like Pelosi, McCarthy has racked up endless frequent-flier miles campaigning for others, who've reciprocated his loyalty. This election cycle alone, he's visited 41 congressional districts, with more trips planned. And, like Pelosi, he's a tireless fundraiser for his party.
That job goes with the territory. McCarthy has done nothing that previous Republicans whips haven't done. Former Reps. Tom DeLay of Texas and Roy Blunt of Missouri, who's now across the Capitol in the Senate, constantly crisscrossed the country to help build up the party's strength and secure personal loyalty.
Since 2008, McCarthy has distributed more than $2.3 million to fellow Republicans through his leadership political action committee, records show. Through his overstuffed individual campaign account, which held $2.9 million in reserve as of mid-May, McCarthy has made additional contributions to candidates and party committees.
"He's done a great job of recruiting candidates," Nunes said, and "he's made the trains run on time."
And, like the last Central Valley lawmaker to achieve a key House leadership position, Democratic former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho of Los Banos, to date McCarthy has made his mark more with political tactics than with legislative authorship.
Cantor also used fundraising for political and party advantage. Securities and investment companies have been the leading contributors to both men, records compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics show.
"Cantor and McCarthy are allies, for sure, and few major shifts in substance can be expected," University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said Friday. "But they have very different personalities and approaches.
"McCarthy is a better public speaker, and he doesn't come across as aloof in the way Cantor did."
Cantor and McCarthy teamed up early in their congressional careers, to their mutual advantage. They dubbed themselves in 2008 -- along with Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who'd be the GOP's 2012 vice-presidential nominee -- the "Young Guns" who were going to topple the House Democratic establishment.
"A Jewish guy from Virginia, an Irish Catholic from Wisconsin and a California Baptist walk into Congress," the three lawmakers declared, half-jokingly, at the start of a 200-plus page manifesto.
A graduate of California State University, Bakersfield, where he also earned an MBA, McCarthy ran a deli and a batting range before starting his political career with his 2002 election to the California Assembly. In 2006, he first won election to the House.
His wife and two children have remained home in California, where he returns on weekends. On Thursday, McCarthy used his Facebook page to wish a happy birthday to his late father, who passed away 14 years ago.
McCarthy's reward for helping Republicans regain House control in the 2010 elections was the majority whip's position, the party's chief vote counter. It's a job made harder recently by the elimination of some old-school vote inducements such as budget earmarks, as well as the ability of freelancing members to raise money and media attention on their own.
In some early embarrassments, the GOP leadership team had to pull some legislative measures from the House floor in the face of probable defeat. In other cases, such as a key 2011 vote to keep the government from shutting down, party leaders needed Democratic support to offset the defection of 59 hard-core House conservatives.
"He's kind of battle-tested in his position," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.
The GOP divisions still exist and will make McCarthy's job harder. One Republican activist who opposed Cantor, National Review columnist Mark Steyn, is against McCarthy's pending promotion, on Thursday calling it "business as usual."
The divisions might even make their way into the Republicans' new leadership team.
McCarthy's chief deputy whip, Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, is being challenged from the right for the whip's position by Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise. Last October, Scalise was among 144 House Republicans who voted against reopening the federal government and avoiding a potential debt default.