Fund­ing, not ide­ol­ogy, fu­els ma­jor­ity leader

Kevin McCarthy’s mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tion is key to the Bak­ers­field Re­pub­li­can’s suc­cess.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Noah Bier­man and Evan Halper

BOS­TON — Rep. Kevin McCarthy cel­e­brated his first elec­tion to Congress at an In-N-Out Burger, sip­ping so­das from pa­per cups at Formica ta­bles with his wife and chil­dren. The un­der­stated evening fit per­fectly into the Bak­ers­field Re­pub­li­can’s im­age as a fire­fighter’s son who started his first busi­ness, a deli, with pro­ceeds froma win­ning lot­tery ticket.

Eight years later, as the new House ma­jor­ity leader, McCarthy com­mands a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tion fea­tur­ing lav­ish meals, op­u­lent get­aways with lob­by­ists and pri­vately char­tered air­craft.

In the two years lead­ing up to last fall’s elec­tion, McCarthy, through his re­elec­tion cam­paign and lead­er­ship PAC, spent $140,000 at steak­houses alone. He paid $426,000 to com­pa­nies that char­ter pri­vate jets, cover-

ing 46 trips. And he raised at least $10.5 mil­lion for Re­pub­li­can po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tees as well as his own.

That spend­ing and fund rais­ing have fu­eled one of the fastest rises to power in con­gres­sional his­tory.

At the time of his elec­tion last sum­mer to the No. 2 post in the House, McCarthy had spent fewer than four full terms in Congress. He was the most ju­nior law­maker to reach a top lead­er­ship post since the early 19th cen­tury.

He may lack some of the qual­i­ties of previous top party lead­ers in the House— the grand po­lit­i­cal vi­sion of Newt Gin­grich, the deal­mak­ing savvy of Tip O’Neill, the strong arm of Tom De­Lay. But McCarthy ex­cels at some­thing else that has be­come key to lead­er­ship in Congress: re­cruit­ing can­di­dates and rais­ing money for them.

McCarthy sel­dom takes sides in the party’s in­tra­mu­ral bat­tles over ide­ol­ogy. He has a solidly con­ser­va­tive vot­ing record, but is as­so­ci­ated with rel­a­tively few leg­isla­tive causes. The is­sue on which he has the high­est pro­file is a per­sis­tent ef­fort to roll back en­vi­ron­men­tal laws that he says have hurt agriculture in Cal­i­for­nia, par­tic­u­larly rules that set aside wa­ter for wildlife con­ser­va­tion.

His rapid as­cent hasn’t been the re­sult of his po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions. Rather, it high­lights the im­por­tant role that fundrais­ing plays in Wash­ing­ton.

In a state­ment in re­sponse to writ­ten ques­tions, a spokesman said McCarthy’s fo­cus had been on pro­vid­ing lead­er­ship for “con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples and vi­sion,” a goal that “does in­clude fundrais­ing for the party and for can­di­dates.”

McCarthy’s ta­lent for nav­i­gat­ing to­day’s all-but un­lim­ited sys­tem of cam­paign fi­nance was on dis­play last month when he hosted a few dozen lob­by­ists and other Wash­ing­ton in­sid­ers at Bos­ton’s Lib­erty Ho­tel, a ren­o­vated 19th-cen­tury jail with a gran­ite fa­cade, cheeky jail-themed cock­tail bars, views of the Charles River and a lobby with a 90-foot ceil­ing that be­comes a multi-level night­club. Guests re­ceived com­pli­men­tary flutes of cava upon ar­rival.

Get­aways with lob­by­ists were at the cen­ter of a scan­dal a decade ago that sent lob­by­ist Jack Abramoff to prison and brought down House Ma­jor­ity Leader De­Lay. New ethics rules passed af­ter­ward were sup­posed to put a stop to them.

But law­mak­ers in both par­ties have since found a way to side­step the rules. Lob­by­ists no longer bank roll trips di­rectly. In­stead, they write checks to a law­maker’s cam­paign ac­counts. Those ac­counts then pay for the law­maker’s travel.

One thing hasn’t changed: Lob­by­ists are not re­quired to dis­close ex­penses for the many week­ends they spend hob­nob­bing with law­mak­ers.

At these in­ti­mate gath­er­ings, lob­by­ists get the kind of ca­sual ac­cess that builds valu­able re­la­tion­ships with top law­mak­ers and their staffs. Law­mak­ers and lob­by­ists are of­ten en­cour­aged to bring fam­i­lies along. McCarthy’s get­away this fall, at the $499-a-night Planters Inn in Charleston, S.C., will be held the week­end be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, ac­cord­ing to an in­vi­ta­tion.

The point of such gath­er­ings is not to dis­cuss spe­cific leg­is­la­tion but to build re­la­tion­ships be­tween law­mak­ers and donors who of­ten di­rect funds from trade as­so­ci­a­tions and po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees to a leader’s fa­vored can­di­dates.

“You don’t sit around and talk about HR 301 and how to get it passed,” said Lindsay Mark Lewis, who raised more than $200 mil­lion for Democrats be­fore writ­ing a book about the sway that wealthy donors have over Wash­ing­ton. “It is a bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ence over a pol­icy ex­pe­ri­ence.”

McCarthy’s cam­paign de­clined to pro­vide a guest list for the Bos­ton func­tion.

Such ex­cur­sions, of­ten re­ferred to as des­ti­na­tion fundrais­ers, have be­come main­stays for mem­bers of Congress mov­ing up the lead­er­ship lad­der, in both par­ties.

Rep. Xavier Be­cerra (D-Los An­ge­les), the fourthrank­ing mem­ber of the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship, takes donors even far­ther from Wash­ing­ton, to the Dorado Beach Re­sort in Puerto Rico, “home to four le­gendary cham­pi­onship golf cour­ses, plan­ta­tion-style re­sort res­i­dences, world-class cui­sine and beach ac­tiv­i­ties for the whole fam­ily,” ac­cord­ing to itsweb­site.

“I come from a district where no one goes to raise money,” said Be­cerra, whose district cov­ers much of L.A.’s East­side. “In pol­i­tics, un­for­tu­nately I think, you have to learn how to raise money. Oth­er­wise you don’t sur­vive.”

Be­cerra de­clined to pro­vide an itin­er­ary or a list of those who at­tended last year’s trip to Puerto Rico. He said fundrais­ing and other as­pects of pol­icy were a means “to do the best pol­icy pos­si­ble.”

In McCarthy’s case, the work of build­ing a fi­nan­cial stock­pile started even be­fore his first elec­tion to the House in 2006.

The seat was be­ing va­cated by his men­tor, former Rep. Bill Thomas, who ac­com­pa­nied McCarthy through the Wash­ing­ton fundrais­ing cir­cuit, at­tend­ing events along­side Gin­grich and John A. Boehner of Ohio, then the ma­jor­ity leader, now speaker of the House. In Wash­ing­ton and Cal­i­for­nia, Thomas lob­bied big donors and in­flu­en­tial politi­cians to help his pro­tege.

What donors found most im­pres­sive about McCarthy, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who watched the meet­ings, was the sta­tis­ti­cal pre­ci­sion with which he could as­sess Re­pub­li­can chances in even the most far-flung con­gres­sional races. He wowed them with al­go­rithms for prob­ing Demo­cratic weak­nesses and per­sua­sive riffs on the prom­ise of po­ten­tial tea party can­di­dates most had not heard of be­foreMc--

Carthy men­tioned their names.

Be­fore he was sworn in, McCarthy had dis­trib­uted to other Repub­li­cans tens of thou­sands of the dol­lars he had raised. He also gave $50,000 from his cam­paign funds to the Na­tional Re­pub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee, a gen­er­ous amount for some­one who had not yet been elected. He trav­eled widely, lend­ing sup­port to Repub­li­cans in dif­fi­cult races.

“I wanted to start build­ing re­la­tion­ships and help bring more al­lies to Congress for the hard work I knew lay ahead,” he said in “Young Guns,” the 2010 book heco-wrote with Re­pub­li­can House col­leagues Eric Can­tor of Virginia and Paul D. Ryan of Wis­con­sin, which shares a ti­tle with the fundrais­ing net­work the three men cre­ated.

McCarthy quickly leapfrogged other ju­nior mem­bers of the House, es­tab­lish­ing him­self as amajor part of the GOP’s ef­fort to re­cruit and fund can­di­dates to re­cap­ture con­trol of the cham­ber, which they had lost in 2006.

Re­pub­li­can cam­paign work­ers still talk about that four-year ef­fort, which came to fruition in the 2010 elec­tion. They talk of McCarthy driv­ing cheap rental cars down lonely coun­try roads, a sin­gle staffer rid­ing shot­gun, on their way to bean sup­pers, fish fries and Cham­ber of Com­merce events.

As his promi­nence has grown, those coun­try roads have been re­placed by run­ways.

Char­ter travel was rare in McCarthy’s first con­gres­sional elec­tion. He made two pay­ments for $3,600 that year to pri­vate air­travel com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign records, about enough to ride for two or three hours in a small plane.

In the last two years, the pe­riod dur­ing which McCarthy went from No. 3 in the House to No. 2, the amount he spent on char­ter air travel soared more than a hun­dred­fold from that first cam­paign.

McCarthy used Golden State Air Char­ter for most of his pri­vate jet travel. The com­pany, based in Bak­ers­field, of­fers a range of op­tions, from light jets that travel two to three hours to long-haul air­craft—“the ul­ti­mate lux­ury in pri­vate jet travel,” the com­pany says— com­plete with beds, plush couches, in-flight en­ter­tain­ment, food and flight-at­ten­dant ser­vice.

Cam­paign records do not spec­ify where the planes flew or the iden­ti­ties of the pas­sen­gers. The cam­paign de­clined to pro­vide that in­for­ma­tion, but said three-quar­ters of the flights were within Cal­i­for­nia and noted that com­mer­cial flights from Bak­ers­field are lim­ited.

McCarthy spoke proudly of his busy travel sched­ule. “The month be­fore the elec­tion last Novem­ber he told a group of us that he was in100 dis­tricts in 31 or 32 days,” said auto dealer Fritz Hitch­cock, a GOP donor and former chair­man of the Cal­i­for­nia Cham­ber of Com­merce. “He is a horse. He is a hard­work­ing guy.”

Elec­tion day has passed, but the pace of fundrais­ing has barely slowed. McCarthy bounces from head­lin­ing low-dol­lar events such as a Cor­pus Christi bar­be­cue for Rep. Blake Far­en­thold of Texas— donors were asked to help him re­tain his con­gres­sional seat by buy­ing $27 tick­ets— to din­ner inthe South­ern Cal­i­for­nia home of bil­lion­aire Tony Pritzker, an heir to the Hy­att ho­tel for­tune.

He has an un­canny abil­ity to keep up that pace with­out ever seem­ing rushed. “He was avail­able for ev­ery­body to talk one on one,” said former Los An­ge­les Mayor Richard Rior­dan, who was at the Pritzker event. “He had pic­tures taken with ev­ery­one.”

Rior­dan is ex­cited to bankroll McCarthy be­cause he sees him as a flex­i­ble mod­er­ate. “He is very open­minded,” Rior­dan said. When the arch­bishop of Los An­ge­les asked Rior­dan whether McCarthy might be open to chat­ting about im­mi­gra­tion is­sues, Rior­dan said, “I called Kevin up and within aminute he said yes.”

Yet many in the tea party also con­sider McCarthy to be on their side. Many tea­party-in­flu­enced mem­bers, who typ­i­cally view the GOP as too prone to com­pro­mise and too attentive to the in­ter­ests of big busi­ness rather than con­ser­va­tive, pop­ulist con­cerns, owe their seats in Congress to him. He re­cruited them. He raised money for them.

He doesn’t scold when they rebel against po­si­tions taken by the GOP lead­er­ship, they say. In­stead, he of­ten takes them to din­ner to dis­cuss what his cam­paign state­ment called “the com­mon goal to es­tab­lish a freer and more pros­per­ous coun­try.”

The ma­jor­ity leader’s abil­ity to avoid ide­o­log­i­cal de­bate and deal with all fac­tions of the party is ad­mired by col­leagues, few of whom can shed po­lit­i­cal bag­gage so eas­ily. It is a key as­set for him in rais­ing money.

McCarthy seam­lessly moves from re­cruit­ing ul­tra­con­ser­va­tives to meet­ing with strate­gists from the GOP’s busi­ness-ori­ented fac­tion, who want to limit the power of the party’s right wing. He re­cently flew to the Ritz-Carl­ton on Amelia Is­land, Fla., for ex­am­ple, for a strat­egy ses­sion with the lead­ers of a large po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee de­ter­mined to wrest con­trol of the GOP from the tea party in­sur­gents.

It’s one of the para­doxes of to­day’s con­gres­sional fundrais­ing world that a por­tion of the money McCarthy raises from such wealthy donors goes to fund the cam­paigns of the tea party mem­bers they op­pose.

Ide­o­log­i­cal loy­alty is not the path to power in to­day’s Wash­ing­ton, said Bill Al­li­son, se­nior fel­lowat the Sun­light Foun­da­tion and co-edi­tor of “The Buy­ing of the Pres­i­dent 2004.”

“The coun­try is led by peo­ple who are good at ask­ing for money,” he said.

‘In pol­i­tics, un­for­tu­nately I think, you have to learn how to raise money. Oth­er­wise you don’t sur­vive.’ — Rep. Xavier Be­cerra, Los An­ge­les Demo­crat

Rich Pedroncelli AP

FIRST elected to Congress in 2006, Kevin McCarthy has risen quickly.

Chip Somodevilla Getty Im­ages

HOUSE MA­JOR­ITY LEADER Kevin McCarthy’s abil­ity to avoid ide­o­log­i­cal de­bate and deal with all fac­tions of the GOP is ad­mired by col­leagues, and is a key as­set for him in rais­ing money, which he of­ten spends on re­cruit­ing and tac­tics like des­ti­na­tion fundrais­ing.

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