For many establishment Republicans, the possibility of real estate mogul Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz winning the Iowa Caucus this evening has caused a deep sense of consternation. But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, isn’t worried because he says the election will play itself out.
“This is a very different political climate year. Nobody can determine what’s going to come out or predetermine whether somebody helps or hurts. The best thing to do is run on ideas," McCarthy told NBC News.
Cruz has a rocky relationship with many in Congress. He has not gained the support of any of his fellow senators.
Asked if Trump was sufficiently conservative, considering his past liberal positions on abortion, for example, McCarthy said, “If he identifies himself as a Republican, he’s been in the business world, I’ve seen the actions he has taken, if you want to see him from every aspect, maybe on his television show he has made conservative decisions, I take him as a conservative.”
McCarthy has faced his own skeptics who challenged his conservative credentials. He was expected to be the next speaker of the House after former Speaker John Boehner announced his retirement last year. But criticism by many influential conservatives outside of Congress saw the Californian as too moderate and unable to unite the warring factions within the Republican party.
McCarthy sought to downplay the significance of the Iowa caucus results, however, which polls suggest Trump or Cruz is expected to win.
In his conference room at the U.S. Capitol, McCarthy insisted the long game is more important - that the primaries after Iowa and next week's contest in New Hampshire matter more.
"If you look at the population of Iowa and New Hampshire, they’re smaller so there’s more engagement, normally they select different people. Then you go into the SEC [primaries in Southern states] then you go into winner take all.”
Most pressing to members of Congress is the impact of the Republican nominee on down-ballot races. McCarthy was unwilling to speculate if Trump or Cruz - or any candidate - could hurt or help the House GOP majority. He said he “trusts the American people” to “get it right.”
Pressed on what he looks for in a president, McCarthy grew candid: “I think the person who runs for president has to put forth a clean optimistic agenda for the future. If you look at this presidential election, foreign policy and security are probably the number one issue on both sides of the aisle. If you want to deal with that subject, I think experience matters. I think showing a philosophy and keeping your word, that shows a strong sense. If you look around the world, I’m one who believes that our allies are questioning our judgment…that’s why that person is going to have to be very strong.”
“Optimistic” and “experience” not necessarily the descriptions voters have of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.