Every two years, right around this time, Kevin McCarthy throws himself at the mercy of Central California voters. And every two years, unfailingly since 2002, Central California voters have overwhelmingly endorsed him.
In eight general election campaigns over 16 years, going all the way back to his two terms in the California Assembly, McCarthy has never taken less than two-thirds of the vote.
Political handicappers see no reason to expect anything different on Nov. 6. His 23rd Congressional District challenger, Democrat Tatiana Matta, well-spoken and telegenic as she may be, is hopelessly outgunned in terms of both money and name recognition. Donald Trump's ascendency underscores the anything-is-possible nature of today's electoral politics, but the 23rd District is one upset that even the most optimistic partisan wouldn't dare forecast.
So, come the first Tuesday evening in November, as 60 and possibly as many as 100 Republicans hang breathlessly on each new download of numbers in their own tight congressional races, McCarthy will be watching a different scoreboard — the big one.
For dozens of Republican congressional candidates, their individual campaigns will be his campaign: Few if any national political leaders will have coached more, cheered more, or donated more in terms of redirected campaign funding than McCarthy. And no political leader will personally have more at stake.
McCarthy will spend election night counting House seats held, House seats lost and House seats still in the balance as Republicans fight to retain the majority they've enjoyed since 2010. By every credible measurement, the GOP will lose seats; the question is whether it'll be enough to turn the chamber. Politico, for one, says it will: The news organization currently has Democrats ahead 208-199, with 28 seats still a toss-up. Democrats needs 218 to flip things their way.
But McCarthy's interest in the macro view is only a precursor to the biggest campaign of his life, which follows immediately if the GOP retains its majority. McCarthy is the leading contender to succeed Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as speaker of the House; if it's not Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, it'll most likely be McCarthy.
McCarthy is not taking anything for granted.
The House's conservative wing — tea partyers and Freedom Caucus types, many of whom McCarthy himself helped recruit — still isn't quite sold on his candidacy. Their doubts contributed to his decision to pull out of the running back in September 2015, when then-Speaker John Boehner, reportedly fed up with the chaos wrought by that same far-right wing, announced he was quitting midstream.
Ryan stepped in somewhat reluctantly, and he is not seeking re-election.
This time, McCarthy's wooing of the House's intransigent far right is already well underway.
He introduced a bill this month that fully funds the centerpiece of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — $23.4 billion for that promised border wall with Mexico.
As if that alone were not enough to get conservatives' attention, McCarthy — long regarded as a centrist — gave news of the border-wall bill's unveiling to Breitbart, the deep-red right's preferred news source, before the mainstream press got ahold of it.
The border-wall bill came about two weeks after McCarthy pushed for a House vote on his resolution admonishing cities that allow undocumented immigrants to vote in certain local elections, such as for school boards. Breitbart got the scoop on that one, too.
Conservatives who had previously agitated against the Republican House leadership must be liking the looks of this new Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy's main competition for speaker will come from the ranks of the Freedom Caucus. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the conservative firebrand, announced his candidacy for speaker back in July, and although McCarthy is thought to have the votes to easily beat back Jordan's challenge, the majority leader has been in this position before.
Three years ago, we were writing local-boy-makes-really-good stories after Boehner announced he would step down. Suddenly, McCarthy's name was on every set of lips.
But not in a completely good way. Activists from the party's ultraconservative wing launched an insulting whisper campaign against him, and then McCarthy put his foot in his own mouth.
In a September 2015 interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity, McCarthy boasted about the political toll that the Benghazi hearings had taken on Hillary Clinton's poll numbers.
The hearings were part of a "strategy to fight and win" a political battle, McCarthy said.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee," he said. "What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable."
So the purpose of the Republican-led special committee looking into the 2012 coordinated attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and a U.S. foreign service officer were killed, was not so much intended to get to the truth as it was to hurt Clinton. Is that right? It wasn't just Democrats who read that in McCarthy's words, either: fellow Republicans rebuked him, too. And the Democratic presidential nominee was so delighted to hear McCarthy's admission, she mentioned it in a debate with Trump.
The distractions became too much and McCarthy pulled out of the running.
"For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face," he said in announcing his withdrawal.
Now, McCarthy gets the rarest of opportunities in politics: a second chance.
He has made all of the right moves, courted all of the right people. Now, like the rest of us, he'll just have to wait and see what happens on election night. He'll just be looking at a different set of totals than most members of Congress.