‘A political dust storm in the Central Valley’: McCarthy’s succession is getting messy

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The race to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy in the House is shaping up to be a chaotic mess — a microcosm of the former Republican speaker’s year of mayhem.

After a protracted fight for the gavel, a historic ouster from leadership and an abrupt resignation, it looked as though McCarthy would at least have the consolation prize of a smooth succession plan.

But now, McCarthy has one well-positioned ally staying on the sidelines and another whose candidacy is in jeopardy because of the state’s arcane election rules.

Soon after McCarthy announced his plans to step down, his onetime district director, Assemblymember Vince Fong, opted not to run for the seat. Other state and local politicians similarly declined, effectively clearing the field for state Sen. Shannon Grove, who started her political career on McCarthy’s urging.

Grove, though, stunned Central Valley political circles late Sunday by announcing that, “After prayerful consideration and thoughtful discussions” with family, she would not run after all. Fong followed up with his own change of heart and launched a congressional bid a day later.

Fong’s first endorsement is from McCarthy.

“Throughout his career, Vince has fought tirelessly to improve the quality of life in the Central Valley,” McCarthy said in a statement released by Fong’s campaign Tuesday morning. “There is no one that I trust more to continue the fight for common-sense and conservative values in Washington D.C. I am proud to endorse my friend Vince Fong for Congress.”

An orderly torch-passing is easier said than done. Fong had already declared he was running for reelection for Assembly, and California law does not allow candidates to appear on the same ballot twice for different jobs. It also prohibits contenders from dropping out of a race after the filing deadline closes, which for incumbents like Fong was last Friday.

The California Secretary of State was unequivocal, telling POLITICO Monday evening that “no withdrawal is allowed, and a person cannot run for more than one office in the same election.”

Still, Fong spent the day proceeding like any other congressional candidate. He submitted his paperwork on Monday, which, per his social media, was accepted by Kern County. But this foray into uncharted territory will almost certainly invite a legal challenge from a rival.

“The last 24 hours have been a political dust storm in the Central Valley. At the moment, Assemblyman Fong is the strongest candidate to replace former Speaker McCarthy,” said Tal Eslick, a longtime Central Valley political strategist. “But this legal hurdle could open the door to second tier candidates or even a credible self funder.”

McCarthy knows more than anyone the benefit of a smooth transition plan. His own congressional career began as the heir apparent to former Rep. Bill Thomas, the Bakersfield GOP icon.

Now, the race for McCarthy’s seat could end up as a referendum on his continuing influence in the district. Fong has been in close contact with the former speaker’s operation and could surely tap into his former boss’s donor network and longtime political connections. But a challenger could make the case that it’s time for a break from the McCarthy machine.

One potential contender, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, said that his independence would be part of his pitch to voters.

“I like Kevin, I like Vince, I like both of them. But if I do get out there, it’s going to be a platform on my own,” Boudreaux said.

Boudreaux, who made headlines for refusing to enforce Gov. Gavin Newsom’s indoor mask mandate during the pandemic, pulled papers to collect signatures to qualify for the race. He has until Wednesday afternoon to turn them in. He said his one hesitation is what the cross-country gig would mean for his high-school aged children.

As for his potential competition, Boudreaux acknowledged Fong benefits from the McCarthy lineage. But, he added, “At the end of the day, the voters are going to have to decide – do we want what we had or do we want something new?”

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

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