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They called him ‘McCongressman.’ Now Kevin Hern could be an unlikely choice for speaker

Hern amassed a small empire of McDonald’s franchises before rising up the GOP ranks

Rep. Kevin Hern leads the Republican Study Committee, which describes itself as the “conservative conscience of Congress.” He was first elected to Congress in 2018 and often talks about his career as a McDonald’s franchisee.
Rep. Kevin Hern leads the Republican Study Committee, which describes itself as the “conservative conscience of Congress.” He was first elected to Congress in 2018 and often talks about his career as a McDonald’s franchisee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The campaign to become the next speaker of the House is shaping up to be a two-way race between Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, each of whom has already racked up dozens of endorsements. 

But their supporters probably shouldn’t say that to the third potential candidate, Kevin Hern.

“My entire life I’ve been told I couldn’t do something, so it’s been my mission in life to prove people wrong,” Hern told Roll Call in a 2021 interview. 

That chip on his shoulder, the size of his adopted home of Oklahoma, came from growing up in poverty and being told he’d never make it out. He proved his naysayers wrong, building a small-business empire centered on the golden arches of more than 20 McDonald’s franchises and then following his political ambitions to become the “McCongressman,” a nickname he’s embraced

So far, Hern has yet to call himself an official candidate for the speakership, coyly saying instead that he’s merely considering a run. But he joined Scalise and Jordan in addressing Republicans from the Texas delegation on Wednesday and the Western delegation on Friday. 

Hern is a relative newcomer to Congress, only in his third term (whereas Scalise and Jordan are both in their ninth). But if he does enter the race, he’ll do so with the confidence of a self-made millionaire who has found fast success in the political world. Hern has risen up the Republican ranks quickly, becoming chairman of its largest caucus, the Republican Study Committee.

With more than 170 members spanning the GOP’s ideological spectrum, from firebrands like Texas’ Chip Roy and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene to swing-district moderates like Nebraska’s Don Bacon, the RSC provides Hern a considerable platform to launch a run for the speaker’s gavel. The leaders of other prominent GOP blocs are also members of the RSC, like South Dakota’s Dusty Johnson, who leads the Republican Main Street Caucus. 

Under Hern’s chairmanship, the RSC has set only two official positions: cut the debt and protect the border. The group’s steering committee has called for impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, new laws to immediately deport anyone caught entering the U.S. illegally and cuts to discretionary spending. 

Like both Jordan and Scalise, Hern would be more conservative than Kevin McCarthy, the recently deposed speaker from California. Like Jordan, Hern voted against the continuing resolution to keep the government funded through Nov. 17 that precipitated McCarthy’s removal. (Scalise, McCarthy’s No. 2 in GOP leadership, voted for it.) All of the men voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

Hern is the kind of fiscal conservative who benefited from the social safety net — as a child before he made his french fry fortune, his family got by with food stamps but without indoor plumbing — but still thinks it needs shrinking, lest the recipients grow content surviving on meager government handouts.

It’s a view Hern formed growing up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas around a stepfather “who didn’t like to work.”

Hern once recalled what he described as his stepfather’s abuse of federal benefits during a 2019 Budget Committee hearing. “It wasn’t because he couldn’t work,” he said. “It’s because he figured out how to manipulate the system, how to declare himself insane, so he could check himself in and out, so [he] could use that to further get subsidies from the federal government.”

His childhood poverty motivated Hern first to go to college and then to find success in business and politics. “I was told by many, many people that I would never amount to anything because I was very poor,” he said.

Politics is Hern’s third career. He started in aerospace engineering after college at Arkansas Tech University but got laid off when the industry collapsed after the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. That’s when a friend pointed him to a McDonald’s management program, and he took the leap. 

Over the next 10 years, he saved $100,000 to buy his own McDonald’s location in North Little Rock in 1997. He sold that one a few years afterward, using the money to buy two McDonald’s restaurants in Muskogee, Okla. Eventually, Hern’s business enterprises grew to more than 20 restaurants, plus interests in a hog farm, a community bank, real estate and a company that makes decor for fast-food restaurants. 

Even though Hern prides himself on not taking money from the federal government, amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, his family-run businesses took small-business relief funds in the form of forgivable loans. Hern’s KTAK Corp. received more than $1 million.

After a stint on the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and some years as a donor, Hern decided to run himself in 2018 for an open House seat. He told Roll Call that his motivation to run was to make it easier for people to follow in his footsteps. “I was concerned that through policies — both Democrat and Republican, by the way — that we were doing things that were hurting the ability for people to actually start businesses, take risks, create wealth, create jobs,” he said.

Hern defeated four other Republicans in the primary before cruising to a 19-point victory in the general election, and he won reelection in 2020 and 2022 by even larger margins in the blood-red district around Tulsa.

Hern said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday that he has spent more than 30 hours listening to members of his conference, gauging the prospects for his bid to win the speaker’s gavel from two more senior GOP members. It’s the type of hands-on approach he’s taken before — Hern dubbed himself a “jack of all trades” in the restaurant business, becoming the human resources director, supply chain manager and janitor wrapped into one.

That hustle might propel him to the speakership, once again proving the detractors from his childhood, and political handicappers today, wrong. “I’m a product of being in poverty,” he said back in 2019, “and found the only way out was to work my tail off.” 

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