NC-10, NC-14: North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry startled the political world on Tuesday when he announced that he would not seek reelection, a declaration that came little more than a month after the former speaker pro tempore declared he would indeed run for an 11th term.
McHenry, who served as temporary speaker during the three weeks that elapsed between Kevin McCarthy's ouster and Mike Johnson's installment, said last month that he was "excited" to continue representing the 10th District, a patch of safely red turf in the western Piedmont region.
But there were reasons to be skeptical that he was enthusiastic about remaining in the House after he'd spent most of October making it clear he didn't want to occupy the speaker's chair a moment longer than necessary.
Internal House GOP rules would have also forced McHenry to give up his post as the top Republican on the powerful Financial Services Committee if he'd returned to Congress. (McHenry is now the second term-limited Republican committee chair to call it quits this year, after Texas Rep. Kay Granger, according to Daily Kos Elections' new tracker.)
Even though McHenry announced his departure less than two weeks before the Dec. 15 candidate filing deadline, one fellow Republican needed almost no time to launch a campaign to succeed him, firearms manufacturer Pat Harrigan.
Harrigan had been state House Speaker Tim Moore's main intraparty foe in the open 14th District, which Republicans just made much redder with a brand-new gerrymander they passed in October. But rather than face the powerful Moore, Harrigan quickly announced he would instead campaign for the 10th.
Last year, Harrigan ran against Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson in the previous version of the 14th, so he'll have some familiarity with the redrawn 10th since about 35% of Jackson's current constituents already live there, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. (Jackson is running for state attorney general.)
North Carolina's primary is set for March 5, the same day as its presidential contest. A May 14 runoff would take place if no one wins more than 30% of the vote but only if the second-place finisher formally requests it. Donald Trump would have carried the revised version of the 10th, which now includes Winston-Salem, by a 57-41 margin, according to Dave's Redistricting App.
McHenry's eventual successor will replace a Republican who joined the House in 2005, at the age of 29, and spent his first years as a self-described "hellraiser." Ten years later, McHenry would explain that he'd adopted a more conciliatory attitude after he "realized that in order to affect outcomes, I had to take a different tact," though his transformation might not have been quite as dramatic as it appeared.
The congressman, as Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in a Washington Monthly profile that ran during his first year in office, had always drawn himself close to his party's leaders.
"It wasn't like he was a Bill Gates, someone who was the smartest guy in the room or the most charismatic guy in the room or something like that," longtime McHenry consultant Dee Stewart told Wallace-Wells of his client's years in D.C. before his election to Congress. "But he did something else just as special: He figured out what the system was, and he worked it harder than anyone I've ever met."
Stewart saw a bright future for the first-term congressman, "You know, I see him as someone who could someday be vice president," he went on. "Not president, because you've got to be more bipartisan for that, but a vice president, someone who could become a conservative legend."
McHenry began his political rise at North Carolina State University as a conservative activist, an effort that saw him don an Abraham Lincoln mask in 1997 as President Bill Clinton's motorcade passed by. (McHenry referenced allegations that the president had offered major donors overnight stays in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom with a sign reading, "Who's sleeping in my bed?")
McHenry soon transferred to Belmont Abbey College and moved to nearby Cherryville, a small community that Wallace-Wells called "a little, unprosperous town with nowhere to go and nothing to do, a place where middle-aged men walk along the side of the highway because the car broke down again."
However, Wallace-Wells argued that McHenry was already thinking about his future career in Congress when switched schools. His hometown in the Charlotte suburbs was represented by GOP Rep. Sue Myrick, who had been elected in 1994 and had a long career ahead of her. (She ultimately retired in 2012.) McHenry's new community, by contrast, was served by Rep. Cass Ballenger, a Republican who was well into his 70s.
McHenry went on to found his new school's branch of the College Republicans and took over as head of the state group. While still in school, he decided to seek public office in 1998 when he campaigned for an open seat in the state House.
McHenry successfully attacked his primary rival, former Gaston County Commissioner David Cline, for voting to raise taxes, a charge the college junior couldn't be guilty of. However, a different commissioner, conservative Democrat John Bridgeman, far outraised the Republican in the general election and beat him 53-47. One McHenry ally later told Wallace-Wells that his network learned from defeat that "Patrick had to get better at fundraising."
McHenry soon relocated to Washington, D.C., and took jobs with the prominent GOP media group DCI, as a Bush campaign operative during the 2000 Florida recount, and as an assistant to U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. He also fostered ties with powerful conservatives like Grover Norquist. McHenry returned home in time to run for the state House in 2002 under a different map, and this time, he decisively won.
The brand-new state representative got his chance to run for Congress just six months into his term when Ballenger retired from the dark-red 10th District. Wallace-Wells writes that, in order to avoid being accurately labeled as a candidate who never "never worked a day in his life in the district as an adult," McHenry obtained a real estate license and formed McHenry Real Estate, a firm that the Washington Monthly said "didn't appear to do much business."
But McHenry had to get past several strong primary foes to claim the House seat he coveted. His main foe was Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman, while two wealthy businessmen, Sandy Lyons and George Moretz, also posed serious obstacles. Stewart, by contrast, called his client "virtually unknown" early in the race. However, McHenry benefited from national fundraising connections and extensive on-the-ground help from the College Republicans to advance to the second round of voting.
Huffman secured 35% (the current runoff rules weren't adopted until the 2018 cycle), while McHenry beat out Lyons 26-20 for second. What followed was an ugly battle in which McHenry's side charged Huffman with what Wallace-Wells calls "cooked-up charges of ethical improprieties." Huffman went on the offensive as well and accused his opponent of throwing raucous parties. McHenry ultimately won 50.1-49.9―a margin of just 85 votes―before easily prevailing in the general election.
McHenry, who never again faced a serious opponent, was the youngest member of Congress, and he quickly became a popular TV guest. (Well, not popular with everyone: Wallace-Wells wrote during the bowtie-wearing congressman's first year in office, "McHenry is the kind of young person whom other young people can't stand because he comes across as if he's been prepping his whole life to be 40.")
But while McHenry was happy to pick fights with other Republicans and champion hard-line causes like privatizing Social Security, he always worked to remain close to his party's leadership. That proclivity helped McHenry rise through the ranks even as more extreme (and eventually younger) figures went on to overshadow him in the media and the congressman distanced himself from his old "hellraiser" image—an image many in the House GOP now eagerly cultivate.