When Donald Trump won the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination, most Republicans kept him at arm's length. Bakersfield Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy did what had worked for him for years, first in Sacramento and then in Washington: A charm offensive.
The House minority leader's trademark affability - he has a mental Rolodex of politicians' favorite snacks, hometowns and kids' names - and his abrupt pivot to become Trump's most loyal ally in the House earned him the new president's nickname, "My Kevin."
Now McCarthy sees a chance to ride that relationship with Trump into the House majority and a job he's coveted for years: speaker.
But California's most powerful Republican is charting a starkly different path to the 2022 midterm election than some other senior Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who want to make a clean break with the unpredictable Trump and reclaim their party from those who back far-right conspiracy theories, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.)
Instead of cutting anyone out, McCarthy is trying to keep everyone in. He's maintaining ties with Trump and took no punitive actions against Greene, while simultaneously defending GOP leaders such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who voted to impeach Trump.
But success may depend on whether that likability and ability to read his members can prevent what McCarthy has termed the GOP's "big tent" from turning into a circus.
"What we see McCarthy doing is trying to hold together a coalition that maybe can't be held together," said Rob Stutzman, who was a senior advisor to moderate GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when McCarthy first rose to prominence in California politics as the first freshman ever elected minority leader in the Assembly. "The question is where do you draw the line? ... Will history reflect better on those who decided not to stay in the game?"
McCarthy stumbled a bit in recent weeks as he tried to keep his party united after the Jan. 6 insurrection by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol. At first McCarthy offered a rare criticism of Trump for failing to stem the violence, but then McCarthy quickly backed down. Such contortions are familiar to those who have crossed into McCarthy's orbit over his two decades in politics, though the stakes today are higher.
"Kevin knows how dangerous this is," said Mike Madrid, a longtime GOP strategist in California and a leader of the small faction working to expel Trumpism from the party. "He is fomenting the barbarians at the gate until they are literally breaking down the House doors. Yet he still can't muster the strength to lead the Republican Party in a different direction."
The willingness to do whatever it takes to nudge Democrats out of control has turned McCarthy into a politician ideologically unrecognizable from his early days as a rising GOP star. As chair of the national Young Republicans and later a staffer for former Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, McCarthy did battle with the party's right wing, aligning with moderates eager to keep the focus on economics and not culture wars.
When Thomas retired in 2006 and McCarthy successfully ran for his mentor's seat, the two politicians were so in sync that it seemed as much a coronation as an election. Now Thomas talks about McCarthy as someone who has lost his way, pointing to his quick retreat from the initial statement that Trump bore blame for the riot.
Thomas said in a January interview on KGET-TV Channel 17 that he hopes that, going forward, the courage McCarthy initially expressed "will be the Kevin leading the Republicans on the floor of the House, and not the 'my Kevin,' as he had been, supporting, nurturing the lies of the president about what happened."
Some Republicans have already cut those ties with the president. McConnell formed an alliance with Trump during his presidency in order to enact a Republican tax bill and install conservatives on the courts. After the insurrection, McConnell did not vote to convict Trump in his impeachment trial, but issued a scorching speech about Trump's lies that the election was stolen and the former president's role in provoking the insurrection.
A handful of House Republicans have issued a similar call, including Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Cheney, who serves as the No. 3 leader in the House. A group of rank-and-file Republicans tried to force Cheney out of her leadership post, but it was quelled in part because McCarthy made a case to keep Cheney in the role.
McConnell has drawn a clear line in how far he is willing to go to placate the ascendant Trump wing of the party, a move that McCarthy is refusing to replicate.
Shortly after Trump left office, McCarthy hustled to Mar-a-Lago to ask Trump to help House Republicans in their quest to retake the majority in 2022.
When asked by a reporter Wednesday whether Trump should have a speaking slot at CPAC, the conservative conference scheduled for this weekend, McCarthy quickly said yes.
But even inside the big tent, the fissures are obvious. At the same press briefing, Cheney said she doesn't believe Trump should be given the prominent perch.
As she spoke, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the second-ranking Republican, subtly shook his head 'no,' signaling disagreement with Cheney. In his characteristic style, McCarthy tried to displace the tension, joking he would end the press conference "on that high note."
Refusing to jettison Trump may ultimately benefit McCarthy. Republican voters and the majority of the Republican conference support him. The former president helped House Republicans defy predictions that the GOP would lose upward of a dozen House seats in the November election. Instead, every incumbent Republican on the ballot was reelected and the party narrowed the House margin to 10 seats, including four pickups in California.
"The reward structure hasn't changed with Trump's loss. If Republicans had lost eight to 12 seats, as a lot of people thought, that might have changed things," said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesman and longtime party operative who has distanced himself from Trump. "That makes it harder, as McConnell wants to do, to put Trump in the rear view."
Even some moderate Republicans see McCarthy as their best hope at wresting control of the House from the left at this contentious moment.
"I think Kevin is correctly focused on the 2022 elections," said Jim Brulte, former chair of the California Republican Party. "So we have a backstop against a president who himself campaigned saying, 'I will have the most progressive administration in American history.'"
In McCarthy's home base of Kern County, Republicans say they're grateful their member of Congress has the ear of the former president - a relationship they feel is worth maintaining now that Trump is out of office, even with the downsides.
"What's the alternative? Should he have no relationship with President Trump? Should he have had no window through which he can call and persuade the president of this, that or the other thing? But it's a double-edged sword and you can't control what former President Trump says or does," said Mike Maggard, a Republican and a Kern County supervisor who ran in a primary against McCarthy for an Assembly seat nearly two decades ago. "I recognize it and so do many of my Republican friends here. That's a very complicated relationship."
McCarthy now is trying to steer Republicans to reclaim the majority by highlighting the policy problems they see in the Democrats' agenda, such as their $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief bill, and relabeling the GOP the party of the American worker.
"You're going to see House Republicans not only bringing to the surface the bad policies that will set the country backward, but also what we're for, what our agenda is, just as we did with the 'Commitment to America' last year, which led us to grow the coalition" in November, said McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks.
Pollster Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican who recently separated from the party, has known McCarthy since the congressman was an organizer with the Young Republicans in the early 1990s. He said he's not surprised to see McCarthy going down the path he's taken over the tumultuous last couple of months.
"I don't agree agree with everything he says and does, but he's got an incredible track record of making things work out," Luntz said. "That is why he's survived. He listens better than most leaders. And he learns faster. That allows him to survive when others will fall by the wayside."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.