Across Kevin McCarthy’s district, disappointment and opportunity abound as he steps down from Congress
This story was updated on Dec. 6 at 4:44 p.m.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – Across Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s central California district, voters reacted with disappointment and uncertainty Wednesday about the future of an increasingly fractured Republican party after McCarthy revealed he will step down from Congress.
McCarthy is stepping down as an embattled politician whose winding career led him from a Bakersfield deli to second-in-line to the presidency as Speaker of the House. Then, earlier this year, a small contingent of fellow Republicans worked together to oust him from the top leadership position – a first in American politics.
McCarthy’s departure from Congress is seen as a dramatic end of a political era in the San Joaquin Valley.
“I hated to see him go,” Len Reinhart, 83, said from Old Town Clovis in the northern edge of McCarthy's sprawling district. “I just don't like their (the GOP’s) future. They're bickering too much. They’re not as strong as they used to be. I don’t know where they’re heading.”
A political feeding frenzy will almost certainly ensue once McCarthy’s seat is officially vacant. If that happens before Dec. 8, Gov. Gavin Newsom must call a special election.
If McCarthy doesn’t vacate his seat by the end of the week, it’s likely to remain empty through next year, leaving the district without a representative in Congress.
Some want to break 'McCarthy's hold' on politics
But that doesn’t mean some don’t see this as an opportunity. McCarthy’s departure has also opened the floodgates for Republican candidates of all stripes.
One of them is David Giglio, a self-described America-First Republican who has been a staunch critic of the former Speaker. He announced a challenge to McCarthy in late October and was later endorsed by Michael Flynn, who served as National Security Advisor under Donald Trump.
“Kevin represents everything that I consider to be wrong with Washington: A lifelong politician who hasn’t really delivered a lot,” the Clovis businessman told KVPR. “This is a big opportunity for us to break McCarthy’s hold on national Republican politics and on state Republican politics.”
On the other hand, Republican California Assemblymember Jim Patterson believes that McCarthy paved the way for the Central Valley to be represented in Congress.
“I commend Kevin for the work that he has done,” Patterson said at a press conference Wednesday. “I think he was horribly and terribly mistreated in Washington. We’ve lost that strong voice for us. And that’s a shame.”
Patterson also squashed any speculation he would run for McCarthy’s seat.
McCarthy defended his legacy in a Wall Street Journal op-ed announcing his departure.
“No matter the odds, or personal cost, we did the right thing,” he wrote, signaling his intention to remain in Washington and “serve America in new ways.”
“I know my work is only getting started,” he added.
Political observers had expected McCarthy’s announcement ahead of a Friday deadline to register as a House candidate in California. The news came with little surprise to Thomas Holyoke, a political science professor at Fresno State.
“I could not imagine Kevin McCarthy would want to stay in a Republican conference which made his life miserable,” he told KVPR. “Most of these people in the Republican conference seem to hate each other and spend more time screaming and fighting with each other than they do with the Democrats.”
At times, the fighting turned physical.
Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett – one of eight Republicans who architected McCarthy’s firing as speaker – accused McCarthy of elbowing him in a “clean shot to the kidneys” while talking to an NPR reporter last month.
What is the future of the GOP without McCarthy in Congress?
But Holyoke says the party’s future will likely rest on the outcome of the Republican presidential primary. Most polls now show former President Donald Trump leading the crowd of candidates by a considerable margin.
“If the party heads in that direction, then the House Republican Conference will continue to be dominated by people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and the far right Freedom Caucus,” he said.
So much of their fundraising apparatus was created by Kevin McCarthy. With him gone, they’re going to lose some of that.Thomas Holyoke
In the short-term, though, McCarthy’s departure is sure to cause further disarray for Republicans, shrinking an already razor-thin majority to just two seats.
Last week, the House lost another Republican following a vote to expel New York Rep. George Santos, who had been charged with a litany of fraud-related crimes.
“A two-seat majority is almost nothing at all,” Holyoke said, adding that the party will have to fight hard to maintain even that narrow lead come the 2024 election. “So much of their fundraising apparatus was created by Kevin McCarthy. With him gone, they’re going to lose some of that.”
And while Democrats may be tantalized by the possibility of flipping a seat occupied by a former Republican leader and House Speaker, Holyoke says they shouldn’t hold their breath.
Trump carried McCarthy's district by nearly 10 points in 2020.
McCarthy’s neighboring district is also one of the most competitive in the country and has seen Democrats flipping the district before Republican Rep. David Valadao retook it in the last election. Valadao is once again being challenged.