Tom Watson is lucky that Kevin McCarthy represents the district next door. If he lived in the 22nd and not 23rd, it’s hard to see how Watson could outmatch the charisma of the Republican wunderkind from Bakersfield. Instead, McCarthy was lending a helping hand to congressional candidate Watson, fundraising for him at the Fess Parker DoubleTree Resort yesterday evening.
Last night was a scene from the dog days of the campaign season. The most enthusiastic donors had long since reached the campaign donation limit of $2,400 per person, the college-aged campaign volunteers were wrapping condensation-soaked napkins around their last few free bottles of imported beer before returning to 30-packs of Keystone Light cans, and only around half of the invitees who RSVPed showed up. Still, McCarthy roused his audience by offering up a pitch with more polish than an antique car show.
In only four years in the House of Representatives, McCarthy has wrangled himself the job of Chief Deputy Whip. On top of being top disciplinarian for House Republicans, he is also head of recruiting for the Republican National Congressional Committee. He said that when he is in Washington, he sleeps on an air mattress in his office so he can get back to his constituents in California as soon as his congressional business is over, that is, when he isn’t crisscrossing the country recruiting new House candidates.
In 2007, the Weekly Standard magazine dubbed McCarthy one of three Young Guns along with Eric Cantor of Virginia and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, “a fast-on-its-feet campaign outfit to help GOP challengers win House seats.” When he first ran, he was more or less assured a House seat in a district that voted for President Bush by 64 percent in 2004. So he took his show on the road, campaigning and fundraising for fellow Republican candidates with great success.
Watson hopes that McCarthy’s golden touch will rub off on his campaign. The fundraiser was dubbed “Young Gun Supports Top Gun.” Watson, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and the Navy’s elite fighter pilot training school, Top Gun, worried in his own short remarks that his two-year-old son would inherit a country in worse shape than the one his father lived in. Whatever he raised at the fundraiser would be added to a haul of just over $400,000, which is quite a feat for a Republican candidate in the 23rd.
During his speech, McCarthy said that when he applied to intern for his predecessor Bill Thomas while he was a student at Cal State Bakersfield, he was initially denied the job. “Today I have a job I couldn’t get an internship for,” said McCarthy with an aw shucks quality that belies his early political successes. According to the Weekly Standard’s 2007 profile of him, “Thirteen freshman Republicans were elected to the House in 2006 — a year that was extremely unkind to the party — and all have a debt to McCarthy.”
McCarthy shared additional details about his autobiography during his speech. His first entrepreneurial venture involved buying used cars at auction in Los Angeles and reselling them in Bakersfield, by his admission a questionably legal activity. He then opened a legitimate business at the age of 19, “where I didn’t expect government to bail me out,” he added.
Among McCarthy’s more recent accomplishments is co-authorship of a book along with Cantor and Ryan called Young Guns. The book lays out a GOP strategy for campaigning and governing. McCarthy shared some of his insight with his audience at the DoubleTree, suggesting that House incumbents are ripe for defeat after their fifth term in Washington after they start losing touch with their constituents, a process that is compounded by the attrition of hometown staffers who quit to start their own families and careers.
If that is true, then Lois Capps, who has served the 23rd District since 2003 (and the 22nd before that) is prime for plucking. Watson’s campaign manager, John Van Winkle, said that in a poll of voters who know who Watson and Capps are, Watson is ahead by 7 percent. Deciphering the meaning of that poll would require a poll of how many voters are actually informed, and the results of that poll might be too brutal for any candidate to bear.