Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy announced Wednesday that he would resign from the House "at the end of this year," a decision that will bring to a close his often frustrating 17 years in Congress.
There's no question that the GOP will hold onto California's 20th Congressional District, a constituency in the Bakersfield and Fresno areas that supported Donald Trump 61-36 in 2020. However, a new vacancy could still make life tougher for new Speaker Mike Johnson by narrowing his majority. And McCarthy's seat could remain unfilled for some time: Axios reported last week that Republicans already fear that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom could delay, or even decide not to call, a special election to succeed the former speaker.
"Pretty soon we won't be able to have two Republicans in the same car," an unnamed House Republican snarked to Axios after McCarthy, who insisted two months ago that he wouldn't resign, said he would indeed quit.
McCarthy's would-be successors, meanwhile, have only until the Dec. 13 filing deadline to decide if they want to seek a full two-year term in the next Congress. All contenders will face off in the March 5 top-two primary, which coincides with the state's presidential primary, and the top-two candidates, regardless of party, will advance to the Nov. 7 general election.
Whoever eventually wins this seat will replace a congressman who, for all his problems gaining and maintaining power in D.C., was entrenched in his hometown of Bakersfield.
McCarthy, whose aunt and uncle owned two eponymous local yogurt shops, first made a name for himself on the local scene when he won $5,000 in the state lottery as a 20-year-old student (though he'd often remember his age as 19) and used the money to open up a deli called "Kevin O's."
A 1986 review in the Bakersfield Californian was not entirely impressed by the location, however. "The full official name is Kevin O's Delicatessen," wrote Peter Tittl, "but that's an exaggeration. The deli is only a counter and refrigerator in McCarthy's dining room." Tittl, though, said that "the sandwiches there are better" than at other delis, "and the owner is a really friendly guy." McCarthy later sold the business, which soon closed.
McCarthy, who was active in the Young Republicans while in college, became a staffer for Rep. Bill Thomas, a local Republican who would rise to lead the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. McCarthy eventually served as Thomas' district director and became his mentee, a relationship that would help him ascend in local politics. Thomas, however, eventually became a vocal McCarthy critic: The now-retired congressman told KGET-17 in 2021 that Minority Leader McCarthy was a "hypocrite" who advanced "the phony lies the president perpetuated."
McCarthy, who was head of the Young Republican National Federation, went on to win his first election for public office in 2000, when he earned a spot on the Kern County Community College Board. He sought a promotion two years later, when he campaigned for a safely Republican seat in the state Assembly by taking on Bakersfield Councilman Mike Maggard in the GOP primary. (California wouldn't adopt its current top-two primary rules until 2010.) McCarthy, who had Thomas' support, won 50-43 in what would be the last challenging race of his career―at the ballot box, that is.
McCarthy made it a priority to become close to his fellow GOP lawmakers, who soon chose him to serve as minority leader even though he was in his first term. However, one prominent Golden State Republican was happy to see the upstart suffer. "You really pissed him off," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told his chief of staff in a leaked 2006 conversation regarding a dispute over a public works spending plan. "Anyway, so you hit him, you hit Bakersfield boy hard today." McCarthy downplayed the insult after it became public, saying, "What is on that tape is no different than what we said to one another."
McCarthy got his chance to go to D.C. in 2006, when Thomas announced his long-awaited retirement days before the filing deadline. It initially looked like the assemblyman would be in for a tough primary battle against state Sen. Roy Ashburn, but Ashburn decided to sit the race out and support McCarthy. (Ashburn, well-known as a social conservative, saw his career take another unexpected turn in 2010, when he was arrested for drunk driving and came out as gay.)
McCarthy went on to win the nomination in an 85-8 landslide against an unheralded foe, and he spent the months ahead of what would be an easy general election win raising money and campaigning for other Republicans. "He helped just about everyone in our freshman class," Ohio Republican Jim Jordan told the conservative Washington Examiner in 2007, "showing up in our district, spending some time with us, as a friend and hopefully, at that time, a future colleague, and contributing to our campaign."
The new congressman quickly earned a coveted spot as the freshman member of the powerful House Republican Steering Committee and joined the GOP's whip team. He also became involved with House Republicans' official campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and distributed watches to fellow Republicans with the acronym TEAM, which stood for "Time To Earn a Majority." "Every time they look at what time it is, it's time to earn a majority," he explained to the Examiner.
It was not time for Republicans to earn a majority in 2008, but heavy GOP losses that year ended up aiding McCarthy's rise to the top. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt stepped down following the disappointing returns and was replaced by Eric Cantor, who chose McCarthy to succeed him as chief deputy whip. McCarthy, Cantor, and fellow Rep. Paul Ryan would soon write and grace the cover of a tome called "Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders," with conservative columnist Fred Barnes describing the triumvirate as "Cantor the leader, Ryan the thinker, McCarthy the strategist."
McCarthy handled recruiting for the NRCC during the 2010 cycle, and this time, it was time for a majority. Republicans picked McCarthy to serve as majority whip, a post that put him second in line behind Speaker John Boehner and Cantor, now majority leader. Just a few years later, though, the Young Guns troika broke apart when Cantor lost the 2014 GOP primary to outsider Dave Brat in a come-from-nowhere upset.
But once again, McCarthy benefited from a Republican loss. The Californian immediately became the frontrunner to replace Cantor as majority leader and easily won a leadership contest against Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican who reportedly didn't even have many of his colleague's phone numbers. And the next year, when Boehner announced he'd resign from Congress, McCarthy seemed poised for one final sprint to the top.
However, he had an unexpectedly difficult time winning over the type of hard-right members who had helped convince Boehner it was time to quit. McCarthy also proved to be his own worst enemy when he appeared on Fox News and openly acknowledged that the House GOP's investigations of Hillary Clinton were purely political in nature.
"[E]verybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" he said. "But we put together a Benghazi Special Committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping." The gaffe infuriated fellow Republicans by confirming Democrats' criticism of the investigation.
McCarthy was also dogged by unsubstantiated rumors that he'd had an affair with a colleague, North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers. He ended his speakership campaign after it became clear he couldn't secure the votes he needed, and remained majority leader under Ryan, though he also dispelled any talk that he might retire in humiliation.
McCarthy finally became the top Republican in the House after Ryan retired in 2019, but Republicans were now back in the minority. McCarthy, who would establish himself as one of the GOP's top fundraisers, finally got his second chance to become speaker after the GOP won a narrow majority in 2022, though it took him an embarrassing 15 ballots to do it.
His nine-month reign at the top came crashing down in October when eight Republicans joined with a unified Democratic caucus to pass the chamber's first-ever "motion to vacate," which relieved McCarthy of his duties as speaker and sent the GOP spinning into three weeks of leaderless chaos. McCarthy insisted for a time that he would seek reelection, but just nine weeks after his ouster, he decided to quit Congress altogether.
Correction: This story incorrectly identified the acronym on the watches McCarthy distributed in 2008 as “TIME” rather than “TEAM.”