WASHINGTON — For all the drama around the presidential race, the biggest surprise of the 2020 election may have been in the House, as Republicans gained seats and cut into the Democratic majority after a campaign in which officials in both parties expected the G.O.P. to lose seats.
No Republican leader had more riding on these elections than Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader and the man responsible for recruiting many of the newly elected House Republicans. In a recent interview, Mr. McCarthy discussed the campaign, how the House is the political equivalent of a baseball farm system and what President Trump’s role in the party will be going forward.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
From a Republican vantage point, what does the election tell you about the parties and the country?
We had challenges with women. We had a low number of women in Congress. It’s not just getting women to run; you’ve got to get through primaries. Do we look diverse like I believe our party to be? I don’t think Congress was reflective. So I spent more effort on recruitment, and I tried to do something different where I would engage early in the races. Because it’s harder for women and minorities to win in a primary than it is in a general election.
House Republicans fared better in 2020, when Mr. Trump was on the ballot, than in the 2018 elections, when the president was not on the ballot. And yet in 2018, voters didn’t have Trump to vote against. They did this time. Why didn’t that hurt down-ballot races?
If somebody has a difference of opinion with the president, they can vote against the president but still believe that the Democrat agenda is too far-off.
In hindsight you guys probably could’ve gone on the offensive even more, right?
We could’ve gone on the offensive. I would like to play in every single seat, but it’s the money that you have. In the end I had to spend 40 percent of our money on defense. We ran $2 million into Richard Hudson of North Carolina. We ran $2 million into Ann Wagner of Missouri. We ran $1.5 million into French Hill of Arkansas.
Would you have done that in hindsight now? I mean, French Hill didn’t need your money.
All the polling said he did.
Looking back at the election, what gives you the most cause for optimism?
The growth in the party. This minor league team is going to be more diverse than it ever has.
You keep calling the House the “minor leagues.”
I look at Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and I look at Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, right? Ten years ago they were sitting in House seats.
What gives you the most cause for concern?
Are we able to maintain our strength and grow it? You know, the Senate’s going to go based upon the House. The Senate Republicans didn’t win their majority in 2010. They couldn’t win it until we brought House members over there. The same thing’s going to happen now. And our members are going to be governors in the future. They’re going to be running for president. The party is going to be more diverse. We’re not more diverse today but we are going to be. We’re on the path.
What role does Trump play in the next couple of years?
I don’t think Trump goes away. If at the end of the day he does not win the presidency, he will still be a player and he’ll still have a base. And if you sit back, if Trump was not on the ticket, would we have won seats this year? He brought turnout.
Mr. Trump helped Republicans in Miami, where Mayor Carlos Giménez of Miami-Dade County defeated Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Mr. Giménez did not vote for Mr. Trump in 2016, but he agreed to support him this election, and the two reached an accord on a trip Mr. Trump made to Miami.
I literally told Trump, “He didn’t vote for you,” right? And I laid everything out. He goes: “I’ll endorse him. I want to know publicly he’s going to support me.” So Carlos puts a tweet out, right? He lands that day, shakes his hand, he says, “I’m going to endorse you and I’m going to do more for you.” And you know what he did? He got elected.
Doesn’t Biden cool the country’s political temperatures, at least at first?
It depends how it turns out. If you have 70 percent of Republicans who thought he cheated, he’s still going to have a hard time.
He didn’t, of course. But the reason they believe that is because it’s being stoked every day.
But remember when he was running. He was appeasing the left. And then he was going back from his old self to his new self, right? So if he’s fortunate enough to win the election he’s probably sitting back, saying, “I’m glad the Republicans won because I don’t have to …”
If Biden comes to you and says, “Kevin, we’ve got to do something on infrastructure. We’ve got to create jobs in this country,” what are you going to say?
We want to do infrastructure. It’s in our “Commitment to America.” We have a five-year plan.
Yeah, so you will?
I’ll say, “I’ve already got a plan right here.”
So you want to do stuff with the president?
I want to do stuff for America.