House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has never been the darling of the right — far from it.
But as he seeks to replace Speaker Paul Ryan, the No. 2 House Republican is branding himself as an immigration hard-liner in the mold of President Donald Trump, wooing conservatives who might otherwise oppose his ascension to lead the conference next year.
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And conservatives are taking note.
Several who’ve previously agitated against GOP leaders are praising the California Republican’s new bill fully funding President Donald Trump’s $25 billion border wall with Mexico, a key White House priority. That comes just a couple of weeks after McCarthy pushed for a House vote on his resolution rejecting the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants the right to vote.
Particularly noteworthy: Both announcements were given as exclusives to Breitbart. The Trump-supporting website has long torched GOP leadership, which includes McCarthy, for not doing enough to crack down on immigration. More recently, the publication, once run by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, appears to have an unlikely openness to McCarthy, a surprising development that suggests his moves are working.
Breitbart isn’t the only organization seemingly pleased with McCarthy’s new tone. RJ Hauman, the government relations director at the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, applauded the new wall bill as a “good-faith effort” by McCarthy to engage conservatives as he seeks to “brandish his credentials on this issue.” That group is rarely aligned with GOP leadership.
“The post-election border wall fight will be his audition to a lot of people in the conference,” Hauman said of a looming showdown over Trump’s border wall, expected in December. “We are very encouraged by what we see happening here, but after being burned by the GOP establishment for decades, naturally we’re skeptical of things. But without a doubt … I think he does want to get this done and deliver on the president’s signature promise. It’s now or never.”
Another immigration hard-liner off the Hill said they’d back McCarthy for speaker or minority leader if he keeps this tone: “If Kevin’s gonna play ball, let’s play ball. … More power to him.”
It’s a reminder of the shadow race for speaker — or minority leader, if Republicans lose the chamber — that is unfolding behind the scenes as the midterms build to a climax. The race to replace Ryan starts the minute the polls close on Nov. 6.
McCarthy has always had problems with conservatives, who blocked him from becoming speaker last time around after John Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned. Trump himself even expressed reservations about McCarthy leading the conference in 2015, telling CNN that Republicans needed a “very tough” leader, and “I don’t know if he’s that person.” (Breitbart blew up those comments at the time.)
But McCarthy is now one of Trump’s most trusted Capitol Hill allies, thanks in part to his steadfast loyalty to the president following the “Access Hollywood” scandal in 2016. Multiple sources on the Hill and in Trump world told POLITICO they wouldn’t be surprised if the president endorses McCarthy to succeed Ryan.
Trump certainly seemed to hint at that during a September fundraiser for House Republicans. Calling McCarthy out in the crowd, Trump raved about how he looks forward to working with him next Congress.
“We all remember the fact that Kevin McCarthy was the only member of leadership to not run away from Trump — the only one,” said one former Trump campaign and White House official still close with the president — though technically House Majority Whip Steve Scalise also stuck with the president. “It’s not like Kevin is all of a sudden rushing to establish these relationships because he’s trying to be speaker or minority leader. These are relationships he has had all along for not turning his back on Trump.”
But while Trump may be inclined to stay in McCarthy’s corner, not every immigration hard-liner is buying his pitch. Some are skeptical of the new McCarthy they’re seeing and worry he will disappear after the elections.
Indeed, some Freedom Caucus members and outside conservative groups are discussing a push to delay GOP leadership elections until after a shutdown fight expected in the lame-duck session. Leadership promised Trump it would fight to get his border wall with Mexico at that time — even if that means embracing a government shutdown it has long sought to avoid.
Some conservatives want to see how far McCarthy is willing to go to give Trump his border wall. And in the end, it’s lawmakers, not outside groups or activists, that will determine who leads the conference.
Still, McCarthy’s wooing of hard-liners, if ultimately successful, could neutralize the threat posed by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has also declared his candidacy for speaker or minority leader. The Freedom Caucus founder and his followers on the right are pitching Jordan as the “true” conservative and say he’d be a major asset should Democrats take the House and try to impeach the president.
Jordan, a former wrestler, is loved in the conservative community and known as one of the best performers on television in the House. But some conservatives who admire him know he won’t ever get the votes to lead — and they’re willing to back McCarthy, so long as he follows his new tone with action.
McCarthy’s allies pushed back on the notion that his fund-the-wall bill has anything to do with leadership elections. Republicans, they say, have been talking about Trump’s border wall for months, and the text lays out the House position before the lame-duck shutdown fight.
Talking about the issue also turns out Republicans, McCarthy allies argue, making the mid-terms about immigration — the topic that carried Trump to the White House — and giving the base a reason to show up and keep Republicans in power.
Still, there’s no doubt that McCarthy’s shift in tone also works to his advantage in making new alliances. Hearing Breitbart reporters praise him for his work is new and unexpected, to say the least. Other conservatives started tweeting their support for his bill online as well.
“Kevin McCarthy’s new bill to complete the wall and gain clear control of our southern border is vital for our safety,” Trump ally Newt Gingrinch wrote in a tweetstorm on McCarthy’s bill, later adding: “Kevin McCarthy has the only practical, intellectually honest response to the wave of drugs and violent gangs crossing our southern border.”
McCarthy’s recent tone on immigration is a change. This spring, McCarthy played a key role in helping Ryan, conservatives and moderate Republicans craft a GOP bill that provided a new pathway to citizenship for Dreamers while also curbing legal and illegal migration.
Breitbart panned the idea as “amnesty,” accusing Ryan of selling out the party to corporate interests. The publication also dinged McCarthy for refusing to turn on Ryan, suggesting that Scalise of Louisiana was “the only member of House leadership” who got it.
At the time, Scalise, who has said he will run to lead the conference if McCarthy stumbles, told the publication that he wouldn’t support the House GOP bill unless Trump endorsed it. That put McCarthy in a bind of choosing between conservatives and Ryan, his friend and the House speaker.
But McCarthy’s relationship with Breitbart and some outside groups started to change when he embraced the idea of forcing Democrats to vote on their controversial proposal to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. A vote supporting ICE ultimately split the Democratic Party, an embarrassment for the minority.
In September, McCarthy again turned heads when he announced that he’d crafted a resolution against allowing undocumented immigrants to vote. All of a sudden, he was blasting Democrats and “illegals,” as he called them, in news conferences.
Now, less than four weeks before the elections, McCarthy’s new bill would not only fund Trump’s border wall but crack down on so-called sanctuary cities. He spent Wednesday touring the Texas border and meeting with border officials.
“Few things are more fundamental to a nation than a protected border,” McCarthy tweeted Tuesday afternoon, linking to the Breitbart exclusive on his bill. “Proud to introduce the Build the Wall, Enforce the Law Act. #MAGA”
Immigration isn’t the only topic that’s won McCarthy praise from conservatives. They have taken note of his aggressive stance against tech giants that conservatives feel stifle their voice, including his push for hearings on alleged censorship of conservatives on Twitter.
McCarthy this year also singlehandedly pushed for a rescission package recouping spending, in part because Trump personally wanted McCarthy to. (Many senior Republicans privately panned the idea as silly.)
McCarthy’s admirers and new fans say the change in his style and tactics is largely a result of Trump reshaping the party.
“I know a lot of people want to make it, ‘Oh, there’s a speakership election coming up and he’s just started tacking hard right’ … but honestly he’s been doing this since Trump went into office,” the former Trump official said. “I guess I look at it more as the obvious, natural progression of Republicans like McCarthy.”
McCarthy, the source added, “wants to lead the party — of course he’s going to support things that reflect the party’s view.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this story.