“How on earth could that happen?” McCarthy leaves Congress amid confusion over who can replace him

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

“How on earth could that happen?” McCarthy leaves Congress amid confusion over who can replace him

Elections 2024, California politics

Laura J. Nelson

Dec. 22, 2023

Months after a humiliating vote by his own party to oust him as speaker of the House of Representatives, longtime Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy is days away from leaving Congress in December. 31, causing confusion as to who that is


to be considered for his seat in a conservative Central Valley district.

About a dozen people entered the race, but McCarthy’s chosen Republican successor was excluded from the ballot and sued California’s secretary of state on Friday in an attempt to overturn the decision. Giddy Democrats send fundraising emails saying McCarthy’s protege “will be embroiled in legal challenges for weeks.” Bakersfield locals grumble about the chaos. Political professionals are baffled by the mess.

It’s hardly the succession plan expected for McCarthy, who built his power over two decades as a master tactician of electoral politics who helped Republicans win control of the House of Representatives in the crucial elections of 2010 and again in 2022.

McCarthy rose through the ranks by recruiting candidates, studying political maps and raising money. When conservative commentator Fred Barnes predicted in 2010 that McCarthy would one day become speaker, he wrote, “He will be fixated on how to win more elections, more often.”

But after McCarthy announced his retirement in early December, his allies in Bakersfield faced a series of surprises.

First, McCarthy’s former staffer, Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong, said he would not run for Congress but would instead seek re-election to his Bakersfield seat in the State Assembly. Fong’s announcement cleared the way for another McCarthy ally, Republican Sen. Shannon Grove, to enter the race, but then


she said

wouldn’t run. didn’t run either.

Fong then changed his mind and filed

to stand as a candidate for the elections

but was excluded from the ballot by California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a Democrat, who said state law prohibits candidates from running for two offices in

one the same


“It would be important to Kevin that the success for that seat remains in the political family,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who knows Fong but does not work for his campaign.

The chaos was an eye-opener for voters in the 20th Congressional District, who have grown accustomed to powerful, longtime members of Congress protecting the interests of the heavily agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The March 5 primaries are the


the district’s first election without an incumbent candidate since 2006, and only the second since 1978.

“This is a conservative district, so voters are going to look for someone who is focused on representing the area the way Kevin has,” said Jim Brulte, the former chairman of the Republican Party of California. “The people of this district have had consistent leadership and they’re going to be looking for more of the same.”

McCarthy’s departure from the race has opened the floodgates to nearly a dozen


candidates. The district, the most conservative in California, will almost certainly elect a Republican.

Aside from Fong, the only other candidate who has previously held elected office is Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux. Other Republicans include David Giglio, a far-right, self-described “America First” candidate who has been critical of McCarthy;

Matt Stoll, a former fighter pilot who

runs works

a landscaping company and has run for Congress twice before; and Kyle Kirkland, the owner of Fresno’s only card room.

The most prominent Democrat in the race is Bakersfield teacher Marisa Wood, who raised more than $1 million in her unsuccessful run against McCarthy in 2022.

The biggest


The question is whether Fong, who was endorsed by McCarthy the day after he entered the race, will appear on the ballot at all.

Born and raised in Bakersfield, Fong began his career working for McCarthy’s predecessor, then-Rep. Bill Thomas

then worked before going to work

nearly a decade as McCarthy’s district director. Fong was elected to the State Assembly in 2016.

It’s a path that mirrors that of McCarthy, who began his political career in Thomas’ office and then served four years in the State Assembly before running for Congress.

After McCarthy announced he would retire, election officials extended the filing deadline for the 20th Congressional District seat by five days. Fong entered the race for Congress during the extension period and was sworn in as a candidate by the Kern County Elections Department, prompting complaints from other candidates who said Fong had already qualified to run for re-election to the State Assembly .

Days later, Weber’s office said Fong’s congressional papers were “falsely filed,” and

the candidate

would “not appear on the list of certified candidates for Congressional District 20.”

This was said by a political advisor who requested anonymity

in order

to be honest, “How on earth could that happen?”

In a 13-page petition filed Friday in Sacramento County Superior Court, Fong said Weber’s decision was based on an outdated law, which states: “No person shall file nomination papers for a party nomination and an independent nomination for the same office, or for more than one office at the same election.”

Fong argued that the law has not applied since 2010, when California voters revamped the state’s primary system and eliminated party nominations in favor of a system in which the top two voters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation.

Fong also said Weber’s decision to exclude him from voting in Congress is an “attempt to unilaterally expand its powers,” which should be limited to receiving and submitting the list of candidates collected by election officials of California county. Adding an additional qualification for candidates, which only allows candidates who have not run for another office, is a violation of the Constitution, his lawyers argue.


Newspaper columnist Robert Price laid the blame for the fuss squarely at McCarthy’s feet, writing for the Bakersfield-Californian that

Congressman McCarthy’s

The retirement announcement will not only leave the district temporarily without representation in Washington, but that is what happened


created “chaos in the succession process, chaos that is likely to favor a Democrat or a far-right Republican not based in Bakersfield.”

“It would have been nice if McCarthy had huddled with other Republican elected officials first,” Price wrote, so that Fong and Grove “would have had plenty of time to figure out what was best for themselves and their districts.” That doesn’t seem to have happened. or has been done sufficiently well.”

Brulte said he and McCarthy spoke in mid-December about what McCarthy planned to do after he left Washington. McCarthy helped give the Republican Party the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010 and again in 2022 by raising millions of dollars and helping elect diverse candidates who were a good fit for their districts. That, Brulte said, will remain McCarthy’s priority.

“He knows a Republican is going to take over his district,” Brulte said. “He’s more interested in recruiting good candidates. He’s much more focused on helping Republicans keep the majority in Congress than he is on his own district.”

After McCarthy leaves office, Governor Gavin Newsom will have fourteen days to set the date of a primary for a special election to temporarily fill the 20th District seat until January 2025.

Scheduling special elections at the same time as regularly scheduled elections can save hundreds of thousands of dollars


administration costs. California’s primary election is March 5, and ballots will be sent to voters the first week of February.

It’s still unclear whether election officials in the four counties that make up the 20th Congressional District of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare would have enough time to certify candidates for a special election, update ballots to reflect the new race and print them in time to meet that deadline.


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