"From those guys, I picked up certain beliefs," he says. "People are who they are; you're not going to make things better by telling people how they should behave; you're not going to make things better by giving people stuff for free."
After high school, McKay served in the Army for three years and graduated from High Point University in North Carolina, returning to Rhode Island in 1991. He worked at the furniture store for a time before enrolling in Roger Williams University School of Law and taking a job at Taft & McSalley in Cranston.
In 2002, the firm's owner Jim Taft introduced him to retired businessman Carcieri and the pair — political novices both — ran an out-of-nowhere gubernatorial campaign that scored an upset in the Republican primary and toppled a relatively weak Democratic nominee in Myrth York.
Curt Anderson, a political strategist with Alexandria, Virginia-based OnMessage, was the chief consultant on the Carcieri campaigns. He says McKay's gift was for focusing on the big picture and the nuts and bolts at the same time — no small challenge in a Carcieri camp of political novices proferring "some really nutty ideas."
The campaign manager, he adds, brought a sort of blue-collar, anti-elitist perspective to the job that works well in this state. "People come from outside Rhode Island and they think, 'Oh, it's Massachusetts,' " Anderson says. "Well, not really."
A couple of years after McKay left the Carcieri Administration, where he served as chief of staff, Anderson asked if he would be interested in working with ascendant Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.
When he took the job as Steele's chief of staff just after President Obama's inauguration, says McKay, the Republicans "were never going to win another election.
"One year later, we made the Democrats pay the ultimate price for their health care plan," he says, scoring gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia and taking Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in stunning fashion.
But McKay, who flew back to Rhode Island on the weekends to see his wife and three sons, is the first to say the local campaigns deserve more credit than Washington-based advisers for those victories. And the RNC's record, during his tenure, was mixed.
The committee stumbled on fundraising. And Steele nearly unraveled amid a series of foot-in-mouth public statements and a too-heavy reliance on advisers from his native Maryland.
McKay won't talk about his former boss, but friends say he had to spend an inordinate amount of time soothing party leaders and Republican donors worried about Steele's leadership.
When an RNC staffer expensed a night out with young donors at a bondage-themed club in West Hollywood, creating a media storm, Steele sacrificed McKay — who, by all accounts, had no involvement with the matter. He was in North Kingstown pumping out his flooded house when he learned he had resigned.
It was a difficult moment. But McKay emerged with his reputation intact. And he seems genuinely fond of his time in Washington. "It was the best job I ever had," he says. "It's campaigning, and I love campaigning."
But McKay's campaign record, if strong, is not unblemished. During the governor's first term, he took a leave from his chief of staff post to oversee the GOP's midterm election operation. And the results were less than satisfactory.