Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s unceremonious ouster and the ensuing weeks of morass landed a one-two blow to California Republicans representing Biden-won House districts.
Not only did the half-dozen GOP members in swing seats lose their loyal patron, but each also voted to install, as McCarthy’s replacement, a hardliner in Ohio Republican Jim Jordan. He fell way short and gave up on the speakership, but not before California’s GOP delegation all put themselves on the record with a vote Democrats are salivating to use in next year’s elections.
“Regardless of who the speaker is, they’re going to try to weaponize that against me,” said Rep. Mike Garcia, one of six California Republicans facing tight races in Biden-won swing districts. Garcia contended his voters will separate him from Jordan when casting their ballots, but acknowledged it would create more fodder for his opponents.
Democrats have been quick to target battleground GOP members like Garcia over their support for Jordan, emphasizing his role in attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. More than a year before the November election, billboards are cropping up in Rep. Michelle Steel’s toss-up district picturing her next to former President Donald Trump and Jordan. Republicans’ utter lack of unity over a pick — after several others across the ideological spectrum faltered — is also being swept up in a broader critique by Democrats that, even amid two wars and a looming fiscal deadline in Washington, the GOP can’t lead itself let alone help govern the country.
California was already going to be a big uphill climb for Republicans to retain their advantage in the handful of competitive races given that 2024 will be a presidential election and the state keeps getting bluer. They’ll now have to do it without the beating heart of the state party — Kevin McCarthy — who for years has helped build their bench through energetic recruitment and showered the districts with money and attention even as the state Republican Party atrophied to the point of near non-existence.
So rudderless are they in Washington that one of their own, Rep. Tom McClintock, resorted to writing a sarcastic letter bemoaning the embarrassing situation. Chief among McClintock’s focuses was the loss of McCarthy.
David Wasserman, senior editor and elections analyst for The Cook Political Report, said the Bakersfield Republican still has a lot of money to push around, though less than he did as speaker, and that he will likely take care of his California colleagues first. Indeed, McCarthy has assured the conference that he plans to keep helping. Yet it’s not even clear how long he’ll stick around in the job, which has forced members to plan for life after McCarthy.
Rep. David Valadao squeezed by pro-Trump primary challenger Chris Mathys by a razor-thin margin last year and went on to beat former Democratic Assemblymember Rudy Salas by just 3 percentage points in the general election. But the congressman who in 2021 voted to impeach Trump has continued to veer right. He cast three votes for Jordan, which he’ll have to justify to blue-leaning voters and moderates in a district heavily populated by immigrants and farmworkers.
His Central Valley colleague Rep. John Duarte also had a narrow triumph last year, defeating former Democratic Assemblymember Adam Gray by a mere 564 votes. In other districts — such as Garcia’s and Steel’s — Democrats hold a significant registration advantage. In his newly redrawn district that encompasses Palm Springs, Rep. Ken Calvert won by less than five percent. Rep. Young Kim, though beating her opponent by a larger margin, also represents a Biden-won district.
Democrats are seizing the opportunity to broaden the narrative beyond Jordan by linking the six vulnerable Republicans to MAGA extremism.
“Vulnerable Republicans like Calvert, Duarte, Garcia, Steel, and Valadao have spent the past week showing Californians exactly who they are — enablers of their party’s worst impulses and far-right extremists who want to ban abortion and overturn election results,” said DCCC spokesperson Dan Gottlieb. “These GOP shills can speak about moderation until they’re blue in the face, but they cave to their MAGA extremist friends almost every time.”
Mired in a speaker race with no end in sight, Garcia looked for a win after casting his politically sticky vote for Jordan. He jumped into negotiations with Jordan over a proposal to raise a Trump-era cap on tax deductions — though the prospect of striking a deal popular in his high-tax state was short-lived after Jordan dropped out of the running.
Jordan’s demise is not the end of the line for conservative hardliners seeking to lead the fractured Republican conference. Of the nine candidates who threw their hat in the ring after the Ohio Republican dropped out, seven voted to overturn the 2020 election results.
Tom Emmer, House Majority Whip, was one of two speaker candidates who voted against the measure not to certify the 2020 election results and received the conference nomination. As a relative moderate, Emmer was the politically safest candidate for the swing-district Republicans to back. But with Emmer now out of the running, they will likely be forced to take tough votes on hardline candidates while pushing for McCarthy’s return.
Republicans by and large reject the idea that the speaker race will remain top-of-mind for California voters next fall, like other economic and public safety related issues. But they’ve become increasingly aware they’ll have to fight it out without a safety net in McCarthy.
“Nothing’s better than having Kevin McCarthy from the Central Valley as the Republican speaker of the House,” Duarte said in an interview. “And I’m a Central Valley Republican running in a tough district.”