House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks during a reconvening of a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes of the 2020 presidential election in the House chamber, hours after a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Erin Schaff/Getty Images)
When Kevin McCarthy spoke on the House floor Wednesday, the Bakersfield Republican acknowledged that President Trump was partly to blame for inciting last week's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but he said impeaching the president – again – would only divide the country further.
"I understand for some, this call for unity may ring hollow, but times like these are when we must remember who we are as Americans and what we as a nation stand for. And as history shows, unity is not an option, it's a necessity," McCarthy said.
In some ways, maintaining unity within his own ranks has been a hallmark of McCarthy’s leadership.
"He's been able to keep moderates in the party relatively content, and he's been able to keep the more conservative, the more activist members of the party, the Tea Party and whatever they're evolving into now in the party, relatively in line as well," said Republican operative Sean Walsh, adding that ever since his days in the state Assembly, McCarthy has used his people skills to rise above the competition.
"He's not in your face, he's not threatening, he's not pulling a shoe off and banging it on the table, and you feel pretty comfortable being around him," Walsh said.
While attending CSU Bakersfield in the late 1980s, McCarthy worked as a staffer for local Congressman Bill Thomas, a moderate Republican who chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. McCarthy was able to parlay the relationships and connections Thomas had to win a state Assembly seat in 2002.
Former Republican campaign strategist Dan Schnur recalls that McCarthy soon established distance from his political mentor.
"When he got to Sacramento as an elected official in his own right, it was clear that he leaned more conservative than Congressman Thomas had on a number of issues," said Schnur.
McCarthy quickly rose to become the Assembly minority leader while Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. Duf Sundheim, who was chair of the California Republican Party at the time, said McCarthy always found common ground with the more moderate governor.
"So I never heard a cross word between Kevin and Schwarzenegger because they would kind of work it out. And what they agreed on they kept their commitments," Sundheim said. "And I think that's why Kevin has outlasted, you know, (John) Boehner and (Paul) Ryan is that he drives the consensus of his members and they know that they can count on him for the things that he promises."
When Trump got elected president, McCarthy was the top Republican in the House. Using his formidable political skills and ability to keep his finger on the pulse of his party, McCarthy quickly won over the president, said political strategist Mike Madrid.
"And I think more than anything that really, I think, explains his dramatic shift from being a very moderate, reasoned force within the Republican caucus in Washington to kind of one of Trump's main allies," Madrid said.
Before last week’s violence inspired by President Trump, that relationship served McCarthy well. Now, as the president’s approval rating sinks and some Republicans jump ship, McCarthy is facing a potential challenge to his leadership. Madrid, who recently left the Republican party and helped form the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said McCarthy is faced with a crucial decision.
"Does he stand up and restore what exists of American democracy? Or will he continue down the path of playing the political game and undermine the Constitution and demonstrate fealty to a failed leader who's proven himself a traitor?" Madrid asked.
On Monday, McCarthy had what he called “an emotional conversation” with Trump, telling the Bakersfield Californian he urged Trump to take responsibility for what happened at the Capitol at the hands of his supporters.
But is McCarthy trying to have it both ways – firmly criticizing Trump after leveraging his relationship with him the last four years?
"The back and forth between Donald Trump and McCarthy over the last week has been a perfect example of what people see as a lack of a North Star," said Marc Sandalow of the University of California Washington Center. He said when it comes to leadership skills, McCarthy is not in the same league as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, adding many see him as more of a caretaker than a future speaker.
"So while she got to be speaker, because she was masterful building majority, he's remained where he is essentially because he hasn't been able to take Republicans to the majority and he simply doesn't have the devout following that Pelosi has on the Democratic side," Sandalow said.
That said, House Republicans under McCarthy far exceeded expectations in November. They picked up 10 seats, including four in California where Joe Biden trounced Trump. Now, said Dan Schnur, comes the hard part.
"McCarthy's greatest challenge on the path to what he hopes will be the speakership two years from now is being able to convince those Republicans who are still loyal to Trump that he's one of them, while being able to reach out to a broader ideological swath of Republican candidates and officeholders who might have become much more uncomfortable with the president's actions over the last several days," Schnur said.
And that will test McCarthy’s considerable political skills more than ever.