Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s popularity continues to slide — even among Republicans

The House Minority Leader is in a favorability freefall, especially among the GOP's crucial MAGA bloc

Published June 16, 2021 5:50AM (EDT)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The more people see of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the less they seem to like. Over the last six years, as the California Republican has gone from being largely unknown among U.S. voters to a national figure, his polling numbers have trended downward. According to Quinnipiac's May 26 poll, McCarthy now has the lowest favorability rate of top congressional leaders at just 12% — an astounding three points lower than Sen. Mitch McConnell.

That includes groups conservative leaders need to appeal to: A Morning Consult/Politico May 21-24 poll found McCarthy with high unfavorability ratings among several groups critical to the GOP coalition. Christians had a 28% favorable and 41% unfavorable view of him, retirees had a 26% favorable and 49% unfavorable view of him, and families with a military member as head of household had a 29% favorable and 39% unfavorable view of him. 

He's not endearing himself to Donald Trump fans, either. The same Morning Consult/Politico's poll found that among 2020 Trump voters who had an opinion of McCarthy, 37% had an unfavorable view of him. Compare that to an October 2018 poll by The Economist/YouGov, which found among Trump 2016 voters who had an opinion of McCarthy, only 22% were unfavorable. 

McCarthy wasn't always a household name. Back in 2015, when he ran unsuccessfully for House Speaker before dropping out of that contest, Public Policy Polling reported, "Kevin McCarthy has made a horrible first impression on the American public to the extent he has made an impression at all." At that point, according to the poll, 50% of voters said they had no opinion about him. Since then, McCarthy's name recognition has been on the rise, as documented by Morning Consult/Politico: In January 2019, only 41% of those polled said they had never heard of McCarthy, a number that dropped to 22% in January 2020 and fell yet again to 16% in January of 2021. In the May poll, the latest, the number who drew a blank on McCarthy was just 15%. 

According to right-leaning pollster Richard Baris of Big Data Poll, most individuals who know who McCarthy is now rate him as unfavorable. On Steve Bannon's "WarRoom: Pandemic" podcast, Baris said late last week that McCarthy's unfavorable ratings are coming from independents and Republicans, with four in ten Republicans now having a "very unfavorable" view of McCarthy.

There doesn't seem to be one dominating reason why the House Minority Leader isn't more widely embraced by his own party's voters. But a closer look at recent events and numbers reveals some interesting possibilities.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson revealed on May 3 that McCarthy has been living with political consultant Frank Luntz, whom Carlson derides as "a smooth salesman" pushing political messaging onto Republican politicians that reflects values more liberal than conservative. By drawing attention to McCarthy's close ties to Luntz, Carlson fans might have the impression that McCarthy isn't to be trusted as a conservative champion either. 

And Carlson's influence matters. In March, Luntz himself did some polling for a nonprofit client, the de Beaumont Foundation, which found that most Trump 2020 voters — 52% — were most aligned with Trump rather than the GOP. And Luntz also found that Republican voters who were most aligned with former President Donald Trump trusted Tucker Carlson the most out of a list of conservative media figures on information related to the evolving coronavirus pandemic — more even than his fellow Fox News primetime host, the Trump-friendly Sean Hannity. It's a fair observation that Carlson's perspective carries significant weight with the MAGA crowd, and Carlson exposing McCarthy as a close friend of Luntz's likely didn't do the representative any favors with them. 

Two ethics complaints have also been filed against McCarthy, following a month of Washington Post Fact Checker articles documenting his living arrangements with Luntz. Salon has also published multiple exclusive stories reporting on Luntz's ethical lapses with media outlets VICE News/HBO and the LA Times. Salon went onto report that Luntz's ex-employees have called his research a scam, that Luntz's current employees were mostly Democrats, and covered other instances of Luntz appearing in the media without disclosing that he was working for a candidate or party. McCarthy's relationship to Luntz ensured the Congressional leader would remain in the spotlight alongside the embattled consultant, which can't have helped his favorability ratings. 

In the wake of the Luntz revelation, McCarthy appears to have flipped his position on key issues, perhaps in a bid to juice his appeal with fans of both Trump and Carlson. 

On May 4, the morning after Carlson's exposé, McCarthy went on cable news to say he had lost confidence in Liz Cheney — one of the most prominent Republicans pushing back against the Big Lie — as GOP Conference Chair, after backing her on the same vote in February. And after tapping a trusted lieutenant, Rep. John Katko, to negotiate a bipartisan January 6 Commission, McCarthy came out against the bipartisan agreement, and even whipped the House GOP conference to vote against the commission on a May 19 vote. Embarrassingly for McCarthy, a total of 35 Republican House members defied him and voted for the commission. Carlson has scoffed at the need for a January 6 investigation, and is no fan of Cheney nor her response to the Capitol insurrection

McCarthy's favorability freefall might also have cleared room for the maybe-idle speculation that Trump could run for a Florida congressional seat and potentially become Speaker of the House if the GOP regains its lower chamber majority in 2022. 

On Tuesday morning, McCarthy seemed more concerned with Joe Biden's domestic politics than an impending MAGA explosion of the Republican Party. "Well I remember past presidents who believe politics end at the water's edge, but apparently, President Biden doesn't believe that," McCarthy said. "He complained about Republicans but he complimented Putin. I think he kind of has this backwards." 

McCarthy's office didn't return a Salon request for comment on this story. 

By Zachary Petrizzo

Zachary Petrizzo was an investigative reporter at Salon. Follow him on Twitter @ZTPetrizzo.

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Frank Luntz Kevin Mccarthy Mitch Mcconnell Polling Reporting