After losing his speaker title last week, Kevin McCarthy sent conflicting messages about his political future and personal ambitions. There’s still uncertainty in the conference about whether Rep. Steve Scalise can get the 217 votes needed to fill the House leadership vacuum, but McCarthy has taken one unknown off the table, pledging to remain in Congress and run for reelection.
“I’m not resigning. I’ve got a lot more work to do,” McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol late last week shortly after his removal.
Part of that work will inevitably be one of McCarthy’s biggest strengths: helping other Republicans win their campaigns. In a news conference immediately after his removal, McCarthy promised to continue assisting fellow Republicans to try to retain and expand their House majority.
The news helped calm some GOP jitters that he would exit the political stage and take his massive fundraising trove with him. Already this cycle, McCarthy has collected $9 million in his personal campaign committee and nearly $4 million in his leadership PAC. He’s also helped several outside groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund and the American Action Network, an affiliated nonprofit, rake in a total of $80 million, $20 million more than their previous record in the early months of 2021.
McCarthy’s reassurance that he would run for reelection also meant party operatives don’t need to scramble to find a strong candidate to replace him amid an already intense focus on California races.
California has the highest population of any state and, thereby, the most House seats of any other delegation – 52 to be exact, after losing one when the 2020 census showed an exodus of residents. The state is well-known for the far-left policies emanating from solidly blue Sacramento, but there are several pockets of red and purple, making it a top election focus for both parties.
For the past three election cycles, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the path to the Democratic House majority runs through California. Last year, New York played an unusually outsized role, giving the GOP three House seat pickups in large part because of its messy redistricting process that pitted several sitting Democrats against one another.
But California’s sheer number of competitive seats over the last several election cycles commands both parties’ attention and resources, and that won’t change this year. Democrats hope that a presidential race and the contest to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein will drive up Democratic voter turnout.
Baseball great Steve Garvey, 74, who played for both the Dodgers and the Padres in the late 1970s and 80s, earlier this week waded into the crowded field of Senate contenders as a Republican, boosting GOP hopes of improving their turnout next November as well.
Even before House Republicans had nominated Scalise to succeed McCarthy, some Republicans deeply familiar with district-by-district dynamics privately discussed concerns that McCarthy’s ouster would hurt the party’s fundraising ability, and specifically his California GOP colleagues’ chances in competitive reelection races.
Others believe the self-inflicted chaos of toppling a speaker is bound to have some immediate fallout when it comes to attracting the number of independent voters needed to win in the 18 districts across the country that voted for Biden but where a Republican holds the seat.
“When you have a disruption like this, and the chaos that developed out of it, it makes it more difficult to lay out the rationale that you’re effectively governing,” David Winston, a GOP pollster, told RealClearPolitics this week.
But in politics, fundraising is the one thing a party and candidate can directly control, and a RealClearPolitics analysis of California incumbents and their challengers’ campaign cash shows several California GOP House candidates in heavily targeted races in positions of strength.
Rep. Michelle Steel, who represents an Orange County district and top Democratic target seat, has raked in $2 million in fundraising so far this year, the most money of any House member in a competitive race. In a nearby district, Rep. Young Kim came in second with $1.9 million so far this year.
Meanwhile, Scott Baugh, who finished within 3.4 points of defeating Rep. Katie Porter in 2022 despite being vastly outraised, has amassed $1.5 million so far in the race, the most money of any Republican challenger across the country.
“California Republicans are no strangers to tough races,” Kim told RCP earlier this week. “I won by 14 points in a district Joe Biden won in 2020. That’s because I am laser-focused on finding solutions to the real problems facing Californians, from record high gas prices and rising crime to soaring living costs and tax hikes.”
Republicans may also benefit from Democrats’ inability to clear their primary fields in several key districts. The state’s March 5 primary is just five months away, and in several key districts, Democratic primaries have devolved into brutal intraparty fights similar to those that played out in New York in 2022. In many of those same races, Republicans are leading in cash on hand.
In the contest to see who will challenge GOP Rep. David Valadao, a perennial Democratic target in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, Democrats Rudy Salas and Melissa Hurtado are both refusing to stand down. The intra-party clash is scrambling their party’s plans and causing each to spend precious resources trying to take each other out before confronting Valadao in the general election.
To the south, in a district that voted for Biden and encompassing Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, Democrats face a messy primary between retired Fire Captain Joe Kerr and school board member Allyson Damikolas. Kerr and Damikolas raised just $120,000 and $155,000 respectively in the second quarter, Federal Election Commission records show – a meager amount compared to GOP incumbent Kim’s war chest.
In the C-shaped 45th district, which includes portions of Los Angeles and Orange counties, Democrats face another even more fractious three-way primary between Garden Grove City Councilwoman Kim Bernice Nguyen, whom Rep. Katie Porter has endorsed, attorney Derek Tan, and lawyer and TikTok influencer Cheyenne Hunt. The winner of that Democratic battle will take on master fundraiser Steel in a district Biden won by 11 percentage points.
In coastal Orange County’s 47th district, which nearly fell into the GOP column in 2022, Porter’s Senate run has left the race wide open. Porter-endorsed David Min, a state senator who suffered from an embarrassing drunk-driving arrest earlier this year, is locked in a vicious battle with progressive activist Joanna Weiss. Both Min and Weiss are trying to outflank each other from the left, while Baugh outraised each in the second quarter.
Republicans have their own set of pitfalls. Donald Trump will no doubt negatively impact down-ballot candidates throughout California if he maintains his enormous lead in the GOP primary and clinches his party’s nomination. Valadao last cycle showed that he’s willing to take on Trump. He was one of just ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump during his second impeachment and one of just two Republicans to be renominated and reelected.
Valadao and several House GOP candidates in tight reelection contests performed far better in 2022 than Trump did in their districts in 2020, with five, including Valadao, Kim, Steel, and Reps. Mike Garcia and John Duarte, besting his vote percentage by double digits. Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican who has served in Congress for three decades, won his district by 5% in 2022, outrunning Trump’s 2020 margin by 4%.
In 2021, Duarte’s district in the state’s agriculture-focused Central Valley voted in favor of recalling Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom by 8%, while Newsom easily defeated the recall 61.9% to 38.1% statewide.
Republicans also have a better chance of expanding their California ranks thanks to strong GOP recruits. In the 9th district, Stockton’s popular mayor, Republican Kevin Lincoln, has a strong well of support to back his efforts to oust Democratic Rep. Josh Harder. And in the 49th district, which spans southern Orange and northern San Diego counties, Hispanic businesswoman Margarita Wilkinson last week announced a $1 million haul during her first quarter in the race, in what Republicans view as the party’s most formidable challenge yet to Democrat three-term Rep. Mike Levin.
Though some party operatives are celebrating these signs of GOP strength amid the chaotic aftermath of McCarthy’s removal, other veteran Republicans warn that the election messaging is just as if not more important.
Another test will come later this year with the expiration of the temporary spending bill that McCarthy negotiated and which led to his swift demise. The House Republicans’ new leader must decide whether to continue listening to his far-right flank and appear willing to shut down the government or forge a compromise with Democrats to keep it open.
Winston stresses the need for Republicans to stop the chaos and demonstrate to independent voters that the GOP can best solve the nation’s toughest problems, such as inflation and spikes in violent crime.
In 2022, he said, exit polls showed that Republicans had an 11-point lead over Democrats among independents when it came to who would best handle inflation and the economy, but Democrats still maintained a serious advantage – 62% to 33% – when it came to attracting their votes.
“So, this is a challenge in terms of what [the GOP] is actually saying, what policy solutions they are defining or not defining,” Winston said. “Republicans need to win the issues more so than just simply pointing fingers.”