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Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy denies reports he is resigning as his district holds firm support

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks from a stage.
John Locher
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of Calif., speaks at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy says he has no immediate plans to retire from Congress.

“I am not resigning,” he told reporters on Friday, addressing rumors that he would leave the House after a new Speaker is named.

Despite the Republican in-fighting that led to his unprecedented ouster as Speaker of the House, McCarthy says he still has “work to do” to help preserve the party’s majority.

Freedom Caucus firebrand Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) triggered the “motion to vacate” McCarthy. Seven other Republicans joined by all Democrats ultimately stripped the short-lived speaker of his gavel, sending the Republican conference into disarray.

“I may have lost the vote today, but as I walk out of this chamber, I feel fortunate to have served the American people,” McCarthy said in a news conference following his Tuesday defeat.

An epic power struggle for the Republican party will unfold in Washington, with an election already taking shape to fill the powerful Speaker position – which is second in line to the presidency.

Local support for the ‘Bakersfield Boy’ holds strong

Back home in McCarthy’s Bakersfield district, however, constituents were still relishing the brief point of pride brought with McCarthy’s rise to Speaker. His supporters are still cheering him on.

“I was very proud of him. That's a long way from Bakersfield to Washington DC,” Judy Flemming said Tuesday outside a sandwich shop in the city’s historic core. “I think that [McCarthy] could do great things, but he’s got to have cooperation, and he never had that from the start.”

Still, Flemming said she could sympathize with McCarthy’s critics and blasted government spending that she says is “out of control.”

“We’re mortgaging our futures, our children’s futures, and it isn’t right,” she said. “Even going out for a little lunch is difficult for many people here right now.”

Laura Kirkemo, another longtime McCarthy supporter, says the drama in the lower house won’t dissuade her from supporting McCarthy.

“I plan to keep voting for him,” she said shortly after his defeat on Tuesday, adding that she agreed with McCarthy’s decision to work with Democrats on a stopgap funding bill to keep the government open. “We definitely don’t need a government shutdown. It was the wise choice.”

And while McCarthy holds strong support locally – cruising to victory by 35 points in the most recent midterm election – even here some Democrats and independents rejoiced in the Speaker’s defeat.

“The chickens have come home to roost,” said Jesus Hernandez, a staunch critic of former President Donald Trump and of McCarthy. “He refused to condemn the January 6th attacks [on the Capitol]; he refused to denounce Trump when so many immigrants and farmworkers live here in his district, and now he’s paying the price.”

McCarthy’s future unclear

McCarthy says he won’t run for House Speaker again. It took a record 15 rounds of voting to obtain the gavel last year; a process Republicans are not keen on repeating.

But with a deadline looming to fund the government and avoid a potentially catastrophic shutdown, analysts fear the party’s internal struggles could have unintended consequences for the American people.

“The troops aren’t getting paid, a lot of federal workers aren’t getting paid if we have no budget. They’re innocent victims in all of this; they’re just doing their jobs,” said CSU Bakersfield political science professor Ivy Cargile. “Aside from McCarthy losing his speakership, they also have a lot to lose. If the budget isn’t funded, these folks don’t get paid.”

McCarthy’s position in Congress is secure if he chooses to remain in office, Cargile says. Recent redistricting has only strengthened his seat with no Republican challengers in the farm-and-oil-heavy district so far.

“Without a real, staunch Republican challenger, I don’t see him losing his seat,” she says. “I don’t think [losing the speakership] is going to hurt his ability to remain the representative of this area.”

But the dysfunction apparent within the party could be a gift to Democrats come the 2024 Presidential Election, Cargile adds.

“This is something that Democrats are going to capitalize on in terms of campaign ads,” she says. “They’re going to highlight and point out, over and over again, the dysfunction within the Republican party.”

What happens next?

Standing outside Luigi’s, a century-old Italian deli that serves as McCarthy’s unofficial homebase during frequent visits home, supporter David Brust tried to contain his rage at far-right Republicans who orchestrated the Speaker’s takedown.

“Who are you gonna replace Kevin McCarthy with? Right now, the Republicans have no one,” he said. “If Matt Gaetz becomes the next speaker, let’s say. The result? Unimaginable chaos.”

That’s the question that will consume Washington for the coming days, with party members set to meet privately on Tuesday before holding an internal vote Wednesday.

Frontrunners include McCarthy rival Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) and close ally Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who Trump officially endorsed for the position. It’s unclear whether either potential successor could match McCarthy’s fundraising prowess.

McCarthy has helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for House Republicans in vulnerable districts, including some of those who voted to oust him this week.

“A lot of them, I helped get elected, so I probably should have picked somebody else,” McCarthy ribbed to reporters shortly after his Tuesday firing.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.