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If the GOP wins the House, Kevin McCarthy will make a bid to be speaker

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

With Republicans on the verge of taking the House majority, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy faces an early test of party loyalty in his bid to become the next speaker. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis has more insights into McCarthy's past and the challenges he faces now.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: As he likes to tell it, Kevin McCarthy's path into politics started on a gamble in the California lottery when he was a young kid living in Bakersfield.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: I scratch off my first ticket, all three. And the most money you could win then was $5,000. I scratch off three of them. And all three say 5,000. And I had never played the game before. So I go back up to the checker. I said, you know, as I read this, did I win? I was one of the first winners in California.

DAVIS: That lucky break led him to invest that money, use it to open up a deli named Kevin O's and then sell that business to help pay his way through college. There, he started working for his then-representative, Republican Bill Thomas. In 2002, he ran and won a seat in the California State Assembly, where he was quickly elected party leader. Here he is speaking to a class of high school seniors in 2005.

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MCCARTHY: I never liked to refer to myself as a minority leader. I refer to myself as the Republican leader. I'm proud of my party.

DAVIS: When Thomas announced he would retire in 2006, McCarthy succeeded his former boss in Congress. In his campaigns since, McCarthy has only ever faced token opposition for the seat representing his hometown. And he's never won with less than 62% of the vote. He entered Congress a traditional, small-government conservative, typical of the George W. Bush era. His first speech on the House floor was in opposition to a 2007 Democratic bill to raise the minimum wage.

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MCCARTHY: I came to Congress to work to increase opportunity for all Americans, not to harm workers and small businesses.

DAVIS: Often described as sunny and gregarious, with an obsession with campaign politics, McCarthy was quickly dubbed a young rising star in the party, along with then-Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Together, the trio were the minority party's self-proclaimed young guns who wrote a 2010 book, went on a book tour and produced a glossy, Hollywood-style ad to promote their agenda and themselves.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Joined by common-sense conservative candidates from across the country. Together, they are ready to make history. Together, they are the young guns.

DAVIS: McCarthy also did the work. He's credited with helping recruit dozens of outsider candidates to run in the historic 2010 Tea Party wave that delivered a Republican majority and, with it, made him majority whip, right below Cantor, who became majority leader. But with that majority came a more right-wing, confrontational style of Republican lawmaker. And the party's young guns were also now the establishment. Cantor was forced out in 2014 when he was defeated in his Republican primary. In the aftermath, McCarthy became majority leader. Asked at the time if he was conservative enough to help lead the party, he told reporters this.

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MCCARTHY: They elected a guy that's only grown up through the grassroots. They elected a guy who spent his time going around recruiting many of these individuals to get the majority. Look; I've always had to struggle for whatever we wanted to overcome.

DAVIS: House Republicans, still stymied by a Democrat in the White House, continued to take out their inability to get much of anything done on their own leadership. Conservatives, led by then-Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina, led a months-long campaign that ultimately forced Speaker John Boehner to resign in the fall of 2015. McCarthy quickly announced a bid to succeed him, but he withdrew from that race when it became clear he did not have the support of the most conservative wing in the party.

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MCCARTHY: If we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that.

DAVIS: That remaining young gun, Paul Ryan, reluctantly stepped into the role. And McCarthy remained the speaker's deputy. Donald Trump's stunning 2016 presidential victory once again realigned the political interests of Republican lawmakers. Tea Party-style opposition to spending fell way to loyalty tests to the new leader of the party. While Ryan and Trump were often at odds over tweets and the agenda, McCarthy worked his way into Trump's good graces. He once bragged to the Washington Post that after noticing Trump's favorite Starburst flavors were the red and pink ones, he made a point to deliver a jar of them to the president as a gift. Trump often called him my Kevin in private and publicly backed McCarthy to lead House Republicans after they lost the majority in 2018.

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DONALD TRUMP: We have a great man. And he's going to be, hopefully, a great speaker of the House.

DAVIS: McCarthy and Trump's alliance remained strong during Trump's first impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The day Trump was acquitted by the Senate, McCarthy tweeted out a video of himself tearing up the articles of impeachment.

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MCCARTHY: Acquitted for life.

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DAVIS: After Trump lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden and then fueled the January 6 attack on the Capitol, McCarthy, in the immediate aftermath, appeared ready to sever ties with Trump.

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MCCARTHY: The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters.

DAVIS: But when it became clear that the party base and most Republican lawmakers remained loyal to Trump, McCarthy pivoted. Twenty-two days after the attack, he was photographed with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate for a private meeting to plot winning back the House in 2022. McCarthy worked to win over Trump loyalists in the House, voted against Trump's second impeachment for incitement of insurrection and ousted Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney from party leadership for her criticism of Trump. Cheney has never missed an opportunity to criticize McCarthy since, as she did just weeks ago on NBC.

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LIZ CHENEY: When Minority Leader McCarthy has had the opportunity to do the right thing or do something that serves his own political purpose, he always chooses to serve his own political purpose.

DAVIS: Now facing a razor-thin majority, McCarthy's political future relies on keeping House Republicans almost completely unified behind him. Already, a handful of Trump-aligned conservatives say they will not support him for speaker. This is Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz on his podcast last Thursday.

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MATT GAETZ: I have spoken with many Republicans in Congress and many who will join our ranks soon. None are actually inspired by Kevin McCarthy.

DAVIS: In an interview with the podcast "Control," former Speaker Ryan said McCarthy, who has now survived years of internal party dramas, should not be underestimated.

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PAUL RYAN: He's playing the inside game to win the vote for speaker. He knows exactly how to do that. He was better at that than me. And I wouldn't count him out ever because he really knows how members think, how they operate and how to play a vote-counting game.

DAVIS: Or maybe he'll need to get lucky once again.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.