WASHINGTON — Rep. Kevin McCarthy's knack for helping colleagues get elected and his ability to maintain a personal connection have given him the advantage in the race for House majority leader despite calls by some Republicans for a new, more conservative direction.
McCarthy, 49, who is serving just his fourth term from California, has emerged as the clear front-runner to succeed Rep. Eric Cantor, whose loss in Virginia's GOP primary to a far-right candidate with little money and name recognition stunned the House and prompted questions about where it should turn as it fills its new leadership vacuum.
On Friday, conservative Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he would challenge McCarthy for the No. 2 leadership post, saying Cantor's defeat showed "Americans are looking for a change in the status quo." But with McCarthy having moved quickly to solidify support, Labrador's candidacy was seen as a symbolic effort by the party's conservative wing.
Though the leadership election is a week away and a lot can change, the list of competitors has evaporated. The strongest challenger, Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, took his name out of the running late Thursday as McCarthy's broad list of supporters gained by the hour, including influential chairmen such as Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, tea party favorites such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and more moderate members such as Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida.
Supporters said McCarthy moved quickly to generate support from within the Republican ranks, and his current job as majority whip — the No. 3 spot in the House leadership — allowed him quick and personal access in a way no other candidate could match.
"Kevin McCarthy has made more deep and lasting contacts with members than anyone in a long time in the Congress," Camp said. "There's probably no member of Congress who has called me or texted me more than Kevin McCarthy during the past four years. ... I'll bet if I called him and asked him 'What's my wife's name?' he would know it."
Some lawmakers and advocacy groups believe that Cantor's defeat was meant to serve as a message.
"I think there's an appetite for a totally new direction," said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who emphasized that he hadn't made a decision on which candidate to support, but he would have liked to see Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas try for the job.
But Hensarling said Thursday that "this is not the right office at the right time for me and my family."
McCarthy was elected by colleagues to serve as majority whip after the 2010 elections. He had played a major role in recruiting the 2010 class that helped the GOP take the majority.
As majority leader, McCarthy would be the No. 2 House Republican behind Speaker John Boehner. The race to succeed McCarthy as whip includes Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
McCarthy's swift rise through the GOP ranks has also been helped by his fundraising prowess and the well-stocked distribution of money from his leadership PAC to his fellow Republican House members. McCarthy has transformed from a regional congressman dependent on the largesse of central California farmers and businessmen to a Washington-centric fundraising powerhouse capable of connecting House members to his potent network of PAC and super PAC donors.
McCarthy's Majority Committee PAC gave nearly $1.2 million to Republican House candidates and organizations in 2012 and has pumped in an additional $480,000 to candidates this election cycle — a formidable funding stream that shows loyalty and can also command it in contest to determine the party's hierarchy.
McCarthy served four years in the California Legislature before attempting to succeed his former boss, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas. While Thomas was often irritable and dismissive, McCarthy is viewed as warm and friendly.
Members indicated that the quick turnaround time for the majority leader election has played to McCarthy's strengths.
"You're running almost purely on reputation and existing relationships, so having been whip for some time, that's why it's an easy and logical choice to continue with someone you're already happy with," Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah said.
Rooney said he supported McCarthy because he's accessible and "one of the few adults in the room."
As the House whip, it's McCarthy's responsibility to mobilize and count the party vote on important legislation. During his tenure, the House leadership has at times pulled bills from consideration when it turned out they did not have as much support as anticipated. "Some of that is the growing pains of a majority," Camp explained.
McCarthy, who faced no opposition in his 2014 primary race, has had one of the more moderate voting records among House Republicans in recent years. Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group, ranked McCarthy in the bottom quarter of House Republicans for 2013.
FreedomWorks, an advocacy group affiliated with the tea party movement, called on its members Friday to pressure their representatives to vote for Labrador.
"Americans deserve a choice in leadership, and thanks to Raul Labrador, Republicans don't have to settle for the next guy in line," said the group's president, Matt Kibbe.
As a teenager, McCarthy used a $5,000 win in the lottery to jump-start his own business, Kevin O's Deli. He sold the business and used the profits to attend college, where he accepted an internship with Thomas and went on to become his district director.
McCarthy ranks in the lowest fifth among House members in terms of wealth, according to his financial disclosure statements and an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. His 2012 disclosure showed his net worth between $78,000 and $296,000, with his $174,000 congressional salary supplemented from dividends from a variety of mutual and money market funds.
He would make more than $193,000 if he wins the majority leader post.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.