When Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected to the House just eight years ago, he became part of a trio soon known as the "Young Guns," the faces of a younger generation that would map the GOP's future.
Now two of those guns have misfired -- Paul Ryan wounded in his unsuccessful 2012 bid to be vice president, Eric Cantor felled in last week's primary upset in Virginia. But McCarthy is about to complete his transition from young gun to old hand, all but a shoo-in to succeed Cantor as majority leader when the GOP caucus votes Thursday.
He'll be a GOP leader from one of the nation's most solidly Democratic states -- in fact, the most powerful House Republican California has ever produced. This might contribute to conservatives' distrust but also might benefit the Golden State's Republican House candidates if he uses his new clout to help them stump and raise money.
"Part of Kevin's Achilles' heel is that he comes from a blue state, and traditionally those who rise to leadership tend to come from somewhere their party has been in control," said Jon Fleischman, a former state GOP vice chairman who runs the FlashReport.org conservative news site and is politics editor of Breitbart California.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, is McCarthy's only challenger for the House's No. 2 leadership post, arguing McCarthy isn't conservative enough and is too closely aligned with Cantor and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"To do the same thing again after the message that grass roots sent in the Cantor race seems crazy to me," said Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative grass-roots group backing Labrador. McCarthy's ascent "doesn't bridge the divide between the younger, reform-minded members and the GOP establishment," Kibbe said.
McCarthy remains the odds-on favorite, and he's unopposed for re-election to a fifth term this year. But his rise and his changing district mean he'll have to walk a fine line, and Kibbe notes the House GOP will take new leadership votes after November's election.
Some tea partyers distrust McCarthy for favoring a path to legal status, though not full citizenship, for some undocumented immigrants.
But back home, his largely rural district -- including most of Kern and Tulare counties, with a bit of northeastern Los Angeles County as well -- is 35 percent Latino, the agriculture-heavy business community supports immigration reform and activists picket his office regularly.
The district's Latino population will keep growing and national pressure will keep building, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said Tuesday.
"McCarthy could find himself majority leader for a very short period of time and have no chance at the speakership," Rodriguez said. "If he's thinking long-term and thinking, 'I want to be the speaker at some point,' he'd better focus on representing his constituency."
While helping GOP House candidates raise money and attention in San Francisco in 2012, McCarthy said "you're either a thermometer or a thermostat" -- a thermostat being someone who not only can take a room's temperature but also knows how to change it.
He sees himself as a thermostat. He's an outspoken critic of California's high-speed rail project, battles Democrats on the state's water policy and arguably is the GOP's point man on wooing Silicon Valley. Last year he brought a group of Republican House members from across the nation to tour the area, meeting leading tech entrepreneurs at Google, Facebook and elsewhere.
"As a fellow Californian, I am proud of Kevin's leadership in the House and his work to promote conservative values," said former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "I admire how he cares deeply about the American people and I know wherever he goes his work will reflect his dedication to serve."
Yet many prominent conservative pundits don't like him, an antipathy especially visible in recent days.
Syndicated talk-show host Mark Levin last week called him "dimwitted," "pro-amnesty" and "disastrous." Talk-show host and Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham said he's "joined at the hip" with Cantor and Boehner on immigration reform. And RedState.com editor-in-chief Erick Erickson wrote that McCarthy "lacks Cantor's intelligence on a number of issues" and "is just another in a long line of big spenders who thinks the Democrats in charge of government are the problem, not government itself."
Sal Russo, a veteran GOP strategist who co-founded the Sacramento-based Tea Party Express, said it's less about specific issues like immigration and more about overall tactics and "disappointment over what Republicans failed to do when they controlled the White House, the House and the Senate." Every politician starts out as an insurgent but those days are long behind McCarthy, Russo said -- now he's seen as part of an establishment that hasn't delivered on conservative promises.
Fleischman said that while some lawmakers tend more toward being policy wonks, "Kevin is the most political member of Congress I've ever met."
"In his new role, he's going to be all over the country raising money for candidates, everyone is going to be in his ear seeking to influence him, but the people who are advantaged are the ones who got to know him before he was the big cheese."
Experience: House majority whip, 2011-present; congressman, 2007-present; assemblyman, 2002-06 (Assembly minority leader, 2004-06); chairman of the Young Republican National Federation, 1999-2001
Education: Bachelor's degree in marketing (1989) and MBA (1994), Cal State Bakersfield
Family: Married, two children
Random facts: He won $5,000 in the lottery and used it to open a deli at age 19. His middle name is Owen. He helped actor Kevin Spacey prepare for his "House of Cards" role. When in Washington, McCarthy sleeps on a sofa in his office.