WASHINGTON — House Republicans have looked to an unlikely place for a fresh face to help lead them out of the political wilderness, tapping Rep. Kevin McCarthy from solidly Democratic California as their chief deputy whip.
Officially, the Bakersfield lawmaker -- who has ascended to a party leadership post after only one term in Congress -- will be responsible for helping Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia plot the GOP response to the Democratic majority's legislative agenda.
Perhaps most important, he'll be working to rally a dispirited rank and file and help Republicans regain control of the chamber.
"Kevin McCarthy has an affable personality, so he puts a friendly face on the party," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, who called McCarthy a "consensus builder."
A former aide to Rep. Bill Thomas, whose seat he took over in 2006, McCarthy won the leadership post by demonstrating his political skills, including his familiarity with his colleagues' professional needs and personal idiosyncrasies. It was knowledge he developed by thumbing through the thick Almanac of American Politics, with its detailed profiles of lawmakers and their districts, while on flights between California and Washington.
"You've got to understand people's needs and wants" to succeed, McCarthy, 43, said in a recent interview.
The conservative lawmaker, who represents a safe GOP district that includes much of Kern and San Luis Obispo counties and the Lancaster area of Los Angeles County, also endeared himself to party leaders by tapping his campaign fund to contribute to almost 80 Republican candidates in the last election. He also raised and contributed more than $300,000 to the House GOP campaign committee.
In his new job, McCarthy will be at GOP leadership meetings, which could bode well for California's ability to secure federal money.
"Any time you're at the table . . . that's good for California, absolutely," said Brad Smith, chief of staff to Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee.
McCarthy's move up the Republican ladder comes at a time when California's congressional delegation has increased its clout in Washington.
Not only is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) presiding over a bigger Democratic majority, but California Democrats chair four House committees (more than any other state) and two Senate panels. Four Californians are the top Republicans on House committees.
Few back home who know McCarthy seem surprised by his rapid ascent.
"I'm surprised it took him so long," Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) joked.
After all, McCarthy was elected Republican leader of the California Assembly as a 38-year-old freshman in 2003, only three years after he won his first election -- to the Kern Community College District board. But when he arrived in Congress, he was no ordinary backbencher, having worked for Thomas for years.
"Kevin lives and breathes politics," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), a longtime friend. Stanley Clark, a Cal State Bakersfield political science professor, described McCarthy as "having the kind of smarts" Thomas has, "but less abrasive."
A House Republican staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, called McCarthy "a political operative, probably more concerned about the politics than he is about being a representative."
But with Democrats solidly in control of the House, the chief deputy whip for the minority party will spend less time counting Republican noses than working to make his party relevant.
John Feehery, a former House GOP leadership aide, said McCarthy's biggest challenge was "to steer the Republicans from an ideological course to a more pragmatic course that will help make the Republicans less toxic."
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said: "Kevin comes from a moderate Republican background, but he's been very effective at working with conservatives. That's a talent that more Republicans are going to have to develop to become a majority party again."
In Sacramento, McCarthy propelled himself into a leadership post with big promises about what he could do for the party. He sketched plans that he said would lead to the GOP picking up more than half a dozen seats and retaking the Assembly majority.
But some Republicans complained that McCarthy was all politics all the time, and that he lacked knowledge of policy issues.
Although his enthusiasm and fundraising skills helped boost GOP coffers substantially, the party failed to pick up any seats during his tenure.
In Washington, McCarthy is undaunted by taking a leadership post in a town controlled by Democrats, noting that he might not have gotten the opportunity had his party been in the majority. "Timing is everything in politics," he said. "Why walk away from a tough situation? To me, that's what makes people stronger."
Times staff writer Evan Halper in Sacramento contributed to this report.