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The ascension of newly minted House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Chief Deputy Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to the upper tier of GOP leadership represents a changing of the guard within the Conference and a potential shift away from a top-down control that characterized whip teams of the past.

Unlike the mentor-mentee relationship that began the partnership between then-Chief Deputy Whip Cantor and then-Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) six years ago, McCarthy and Cantor are seen more as political equals by party observers. Both men are regarded as skilled legislators and strategists with powerful fundraising operations. Additionally, McCarthy’s reputation for being a workhorse and a policy wonk made him a strong choice for the Chief Deputy post.

Blunt said Monday that Cantor’s experience as the Chief Deputy Whip more than prepared him to make the important decision as to who would serve as his second in command.

“It is one of the most critical partnerships you are going to enter into legislatively,” Blunt said. “I think Eric took this into account.”

Blunt said McCarthy’s talent as a legislator was recognized early on by his whip operation in the 110th Congress, and prompted him and Cantor to ask McCarthy to be on the whip team as a first-term lawmaker.

“Kevin McCarthy went to the California Legislature and very quickly became minority leader there,” Blunt said, adding that as Chief Deputy Whip, McCarthy’s talent will continue to be showcased.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who served as Minority Whip in 1988 and then as Majority Whip in 1995, said that while he did not know McCarthy well, he was impressed by his political ability.

“His leadership potential is really strong,” DeLay said in an interview. “He has a political mind that is not found very often in Congress. … He has an intuition that is very impressive.”

Like Blunt, DeLay said a strong relationship between the Whip and his deputy is integral to a well-functioning operation.

“That relationship will become very, very close,” he said. “It’s two political entities trying to function as one and that is very difficult to do.”

“There is no more [of an] important thing than being able to get along,” he said.

Cantor said his decision to select McCarthy came not only from his work on policy and legislation, but also because of the relationship the two developed founding Young Guns, a branch of the National Republican Congressional Committee aimed at recruiting GOP challengers.

For his part, McCarthy called the appointment “an enormous honor” and an opportunity for the duo to take their partnership a step further – “to help create a foundation of new and fresh ideas to solve America’s pressing challenges.”

“We will be part of the solution to turn the page toward a new era of Republican leadership. I am proud to begin this mission on the innovative path to a better future,” McCarthy said.

In addition to having an already-strong working relationship with Cantor, McCarthy also enters his new job having a close alliance with Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). Still, McCarthy has shown a willingness to buck party leadership, including most recently when voted against the $700 billion economic rescue package.

Asked about the vote, Cantor, who also supported the bill, dismissed that it was a harbinger for future splits between the two whips. He said the enormity of the financial crisis dictated lawmakers’ votes on the bailout measure, not politics.

Cantor also stressed the importance of formatting a fresh message for the House GOP and for embracing new and innovative technologies for fundraising – areas in which McCarthy excelled as the chairman of the 2008 Republican Platform Committee.

“Republicans across the spectrum have been looking for new faces, and Congressman McCarthy is certainly going to please all of those looking for a new direction, creative ideas and exciting new faces,” one GOP leadership aide said. “When it comes to policy, political strategy and fundraising, McCarthy is an absolute workhorse and will be a force to be reckoned with working alongside of Eric Cantor as the party establishes a fresh new identity.”

Policy Chairman Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), who also found himself opposing his fellow GOP leaders last fall, applauded the choice.

“This makes a lot of sense, this is a great pick for Eric and a great pick for the Conference,” he said.

McCotter jokingly added that McCarthy’s external attributes also could have contributed to his selection.

“Don’t overlook that Kevin has a spectacular head of hair,” he said.

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