Column: Kevin McCarthy wants vengeance. Now he's free to pursue it

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 14: Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., greets staffers and members while conducting a photo-op in the U.S. Capitol's Rayburn Room on Thursday, December 14, 2023. McCarthy will leave Congress at the end of the year. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Former Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy became the first House leader in history to be voted out of his position. Now he's seeking to avenge his ouster by targeting several GOP foes. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Inc via Getty Images)

Kevin McCarthy is having a grand old time.

He's traveling the country giving six-figure speeches, playing pundit and elder statesman on TV, holding forth at high-brow political forums and, not least, plotting vengeance against those behind his unceremonious ouster as House speaker.

Eight Republican lawmakers joined 208 Democrats in toppling the former Bakersfield congressman, the first time in history a House leader has been voted out. Rather than hang on, McCarthy left office at the end of 2023.

Two of the eight Republicans are joining him in retirement. Three others — Bob Good of Virginia, Eli Crane of Arizona and Nancy Mace of South Carolina — face strong primary challenges. McCarthy has been working behind the scenes to end their congressional careers, strategizing and directing money and other resources to their opponents.

"He wants to hold to account those who pushed him out," said a Central Valley political operative, who has a decades-long relationship with McCarthy.

Like most, the operative asked not to be quoted by name, to preserve his relationship with the ex-speaker. McCarthy declined to be interviewed, perhaps because of the ways — feckless, morally bankrupt — your friendly columnist has described him.

McCarthy's chief nemesis, according to several who have spoken with him, is Rep. Matt Gaetz, who was the main instigator of McCarthy's downfall. The pugnacious Florida Republican faces little danger of losing his House seat but may run for governor in 2026.

Read more: Kevin McCarthy ousted as speaker, throwing Washington into chaos

During an appearance this month at Georgetown University, McCarthy dropped a depth charge on Gaetz, insisting the only reason he lost the speakership is that "one person wanted me to stop an ethics complaint because he slept with a 17-year-old."

"Did he do it?" McCarthy added, after asserting for all the world he had. "I don't know."

The reference was to allegations that Gaetz paid for sex, including relations with an underage girl, while in Congress. The Justice Department investigated the Florida lawmaker and decided not to bring charges. The House Ethics Committee is continuing its probe.

"McCarthy is a liar," Gaetz shot back on social media. "That's why he is no longer speaker."

McCarthy is a political animal down to his marrow and the speakership is a job he coveted much of his career. His tenure — less than nine months — lasted barely long enough to pose for the portrait that will someday hang in the Capitol.

But now, said one political associate, McCarthy feels free. He's no longer responsible for shepherding a colicky, eyelash-thin Republican majority — over to you, Mike Johnson! — and can fully devote himself to what has long been McCarthy's forte: campaigns and elections.

He remains close to the many lawmakers he recruited and helped get in office and keeps in touch with a nationwide donor network built during years as one of the GOP's top congressional strategists.

Keeping Republican control of the House is, of course, a top priority for McCarthy this November. So is reelecting members like Orange County's Young Kim and Michelle Steel and Oregon's Lori Chavez-DeRemer, who helped diversify the white-as-snow ranks of the House GOP.

Read more: Column: McCarthy's fall was sudden, but a long time coming

The recent Georgetown seminar, billed as a discussion of the durability of American democracy, put McCarthy's strength and failings on full display.

He was charming. He was affable. He was self-deprecating, offering to field students' questions for as long as they liked, seeing as how "I don't have a job anymore."

McCarthy broke with former President Trump and many fellow Republicans by supporting U.S. aid for Ukraine and likening Vladimir Putin to Hitler. He said, without the slightest hesitation, that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, shooting down Trump's persistent lies about his defeat.

He also dodged and deflected.

McCarthy drew false equivalence between the griping of sour-grape Democrats who lost elections and the pernicious legal and tactical fights Trump and his allies waged to overturn Biden's victory.

He suggested, with a straight face, that Trump is merely “defending due process” when he refers to the violent perpetrators of Jan. 6 as “hostages.”

He said he never heard Trump speak of immigrants "poisoning the blood" of America, which is plausible only if you think McCarthy just arrived on Earth via spaceship from Mars.

The erstwhile speaker, who remains in touch with the ex-president, has been mentioned as a prospective recruit for a second Trump administration. He's done little to jeopardize his chances.

Read more: From Bakersfield to speaker of the House: Kevin McCarthy's D.C. career in photos

One thing that McCarthy is apparently not interested in, say several people who have spoken with him, is raking in big bucks an an influence peddler.

While he pulls down $100,000 to $150,000 a speech, according to one political ally, McCarthy could make a good deal more with much less effort by capitalizing on his connections in Washington and Sacramento.

But Cathy Abernathy, a GOP strategist who has known McCarthy for decades, said he's much happier and better suited to working in the campaign realm.

"There's plenty of people back there being lobbyists," said Abernathy, who hired McCarthy in 1987 as an intern in then-Rep. Bill Thomas' Bakersfield office. "His skills and talent are with people and politics and strategizing on the way to elect a viable Republican majority."

McCarthy is particularly deft, she said, "understanding the politics of a district, the kind of candidate that fits a district, the kinds of campaigns that work with the voters in that district."

And now McCarthy has added incentive to ply that knowledge, beyond his lifelong affinity for Republican candidates and causes: Payback.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.