House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, making a homecoming appearance in front of California Republicans on Saturday, said that after his successful yet protracted fight for the gavel both he and the GOP emerged as a tougher and more formidable political force in Washington.
McCarthy had to grant numerous concessions to Congress’ most conservative members to win the speakership, and even then it took 15 rounds of voting — the first time in a century that a speaker was not elected on the first ballot. He called the experience, a spectacle that played out on live national television, a test from God.
“He just thought we would be stronger if we went through it,” McCarthy said to hundreds of delegates and guests at a California Republican Party luncheon, his first speech to the state party since winning the post.
McCarthy made no mention of former President Trump, with whom he has a complicated relationship. He was an early ardent supporter of the real estate baron turned reality-television star during the 2016 campaign, leading Trump to call him “my Kevin.”
But McCarthy was furious with the then-president for not quelling the insurrectionists who breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. That was followed by a number of contradictory statements about the president’s responsibility for the violence, first publicly blaming him, then saying Trump did not incite the mob.
Nearly a year ago, audio recordings emerged of McCarthy telling fellow GOP leaders in early 2021 that he planned to urge Trump to resign during the waning days of his presidency. But recently, McCarthy decided to hand over some 41,000 hours of Jan. 6 security video to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who used the material to fuel an effort to explain away the deadly Capitol attack.
The California Republican Party remains home to a large number of Trump acolytes, some of whom were irked by McCarthy’s criticism of the former president in the aftermath of Jan. 6.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really think he’s handled it as well as he should,” said Elvira Moreno, a 54-year-old delegate from Orange County.
She said he should have hashed out his differences with Trump privately in order to present a united front: “With him not backing his friend, if they were ever friends, just from what I saw, I didn’t feel that he took a strong stand.”
But Moreno, who wore a Trump lanyard and brought along a years-old picture of herself with McCarthy from a previous convention, said she felt pride in seeing the Bakersfield native rise to become second in line to the presidency. She also supported the actions he has taken since becoming speaker, such as booting Democratic Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, Eric Swalwell of Dublin and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from congressional committees.
“He’s showing us that he’s doing the job,” Moreno said. “Accountability is very important, transparency. What he said was really what I wanted to hear as a Californian, as an involved individual for over 35 years.”
The view from Sacramento
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Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland, who recalled entertaining and hosting poker nights when he shared a Sacramento house with McCarthy and Doug LeMalfa when the trio were in the state Legislature in the early 2010s, said he was proud of McCarthy and not surprised that he was successful.
“I said, ‘He will be speaker, I don’t care if it takes 100 votes,’” Strickland said. “He’s a fighter and, quite frankly, he works well with people, but when he makes up his mind, he fights. I think a lot of members of Congress and a lot of the people here very much appreciate that fight.”
They were among the 500 or so attendees who bought $250 to $350 luncheon tickets to see McCarthy, who did not speak with the media during the event. Some spent an additional $500 to go to a VIP reception with the speaker and take a picture with him.
McCarthy’s speech included popular Republican touchstones such as fortifying the border, expanding parental rights, supporting law enforcement, opposing China and making fun of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coiffure as he criticized the Democrat’s spending priorities, including funding for the California bullet train.
“The only thing I think Gavin spends more time on than high-speed rail is spending time on his hair,” McCarthy said.
Though the state GOP does not yet have a prominent candidate running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, McCarthy did blast one of the Democrat’s top contenders, Schiff, who has earned the ire of Republicans because of his role as a top Democratic foe to Trump.
“He should never become senator,” McCarthy said, arguing that Schiff took his “eye off the ball” on issues such as foreign policy and the supply chain.
The speech was the marquee event of an otherwise relatively sleepy three-day convention at the Hyatt Regency.
No presidential candidates attended despite the state’s primary taking place less than a year from now, and California offering the largest cache of delegates of any state in the nation. Orange County GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker referred to the 2024 presidential race as a “crusade” during an invocation Saturday.
Former Rep. Devin Nunes, who left Congress to lead Trump’s social media company, was supposed to speak Friday night but canceled because of weather problems. Two members of Congress spoke in his place, and three more spoke Saturday night, including newly elected Rep. John Duarte of Modesto and Rep. Michelle Steel of Seal Beach, who beat back a challenge in a tight district that includes swaths of Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Such electoral results were among the few causes of celebration for a party that last won statewide office in 2006, and whose voters are outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 by Democrats.
Republicans would not have their five-seat majority in Congress without these two wins, plus three other pickups in California in 2020, McCarthy said, as he called for the reelection of state party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson during Sunday’s internal party elections.
“In the last two cycles, we have done nothing but win,” McCarthy said, ignoring the lack of statewide success and the party’s dismal showing in last year’s attempted recall of Newsom.
Millan Patterson, a protege of McCarthy’s whom he first urged to run for the party post in 2019, is widely expected to easily win reelection.